In 1940, commercial artist Warner Sallman created the oil painting Head of Christ. This image has since been reproduced hundreds of millions of times, on prints, plaques, bookmarks, greeting cards, funeral announcements, church bulletins, buttons, calendars, clocks, lamps, coffee mugs, stickers, billboards, and key chains. Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus, says that the wide dissemination of Sallman’s Head of Christ transformed Jesus from a celebrity into a national icon, making him now instantly recognizable by Americans of all races and religions. And, more than that, Prothero says, the picture became the most common religious image in the world (out-popularizing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and dozens of other works of religious import). Even today, Warner Press receives requests for the use of Sallman’s work on a weekly basis from national media outlets, gift companies, publishers, ministries, and individuals.
In a 1994 New York Times article entitled “The Man Who Rendered Jesus for the Age of Duplication,” writer William Grimes is so bold as to call Sallman the “best-known artist of the [twentieth] century,” outranking even Picasso and Warhol. Best known? I don’t know about that, but Sallman’s art was certainly the most widely reproduced and distributed of any other twentieth-century artist’s. His Head of Christ immediately became a staple of every American Protestant home, church building, and funeral parlor. Sallman’s publisher, Kriebel & Bates, apparently had an excellent marketing team.
(That would be a Finnish stamp you’re seeing at the bottom center, released in 2010 by the Aland Islands.)
Head of Christ is an object of both personal devotion and scholarly study. In the 1990s, the Lilly Endowment funded a major study of the impact of Sallman’s art on religion in America. To cap off the study, art historian David Morgan compiled a collection of essays and conference papers and published them in book form under the title Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman.
During the course of the project, Morgan requested and received more than 500 personal responses to Sallman’s work. Respondents overwhelmingly stated that the picture appealed to them because it shows “just what Jesus looked like.” In other words, they believed it to be the most accurate pictorial depiction ever created—a rather odd claim, seeing as no one from the ’90s was around in the first century to have seen Jesus in the flesh. Morgan attributes these claims of authenticity (and general likeability) in part to the photo-like qualities of the portrait, which give it the appearance of realism and make it seem like a personal keepsake. The blurred contours and soft back lighting, he said, are reminiscent of the studio photographs of family members and loved ones that people so often carry around in their purses and wallets.
In fact, during WWII, the YMCA and Salvation Army distributed tens of thousands of wallet-sized copies of Head of Christ overseas to servicemen. Jason Knapp, one of the researchers for the Sallman project, said that ex-G.I.s would weep as they told him stories about carrying Head of Christ in their wallets, and how it kept them alive.
Another possible contributing factor to the public’s widespread fondness for Head of Christ is the fact that in it, Jesus is close-cropped and alone, shown only from the shoulders up. Because Sallman’s Jesus has been extracted from the context of time, place, and narrative, we can place him into our own context, and because he is not interacting with other figures inside the frame, we are free to interact with him more personally and intimately. The Jesus that gazes outward appears to be warm, gentle, and compassionate, the beautiful Savior so many people long for.
The image does have its detractors, though, many of whom consider it to be too soft and effeminate a portrayal of Christ. Robert Paul Roth, a Lutheran evangelical and New Testament scholar, wrote in a 1958 Christianity Today article entitled “Christ and the Muses” that Head of Christ is a “pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo shampoo.” Another man compared Sallman’s Jesus to the Breck Girl.
Writer Alan Devoe’s criticism was much harsher. In the November 1948 issue of The American Mercury, Devoe wrote that the portrait inaccurately portrays Jesus as “actorishly barbered . . . a pale and posturing person with immoderately long, silky hair . . . who clutched a kind of diaphanous drapery gracefully about him with an expression of simpering vapidity.” He lamented that Sunday school teachers all over America were teaching little children to hold the “limp and clammy hand” of this sissified Jesus.
I’ve definitely seen more effeminate depictions of Jesus. But I do tend to sit on the side of the detractors on this one. I look at the portrait and see “Pretty Jesus.” A too pretty Jesus. The real Jesus walked through dusty streets and had no razor or hairdryer with which to groom himself. I mean, maybe this Jesus got all cleaned up for picture day, but somehow I think that he was never quite this neatly combed and sparkly clean. And, considering the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 53, verse 2 (“he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”), I also think that Jesus wasn’t as handsome or “pretty” as so many artists make him out to be. As if in blatant refusal of Isaiah 53:2, artists try to attract people to Jesus precisely by making him look beautiful and majestic. That’s because we like to stare at what is beautiful. Hollywood knows this and casts only beauties in leading roles. Because for some reason, we tend to invest ourselves more heavily in characters who look good.
. . . But all these criticisms are not to say that something valuable can’t be read in Christ’s gaze. As I will explore in later posts as I evaluate other Heads of Christ, an accurate optical-historical rendering shouldn’t be of primary concern to the viewer. It’s all about what the image can tell us about Christ. It’s about how we experience Christ more deeply through the viewing of it. I have to say, though, it’s hard for me to connect to Sallman’s Christ. The pretty-boy image gets too much in the way for me, because it seems to ignore certain realities, and the way his eyes are pointed upward (perhaps communing with the Father?) makes it hard to find an entry point into the painting.
In what settings or forms have you encountered Sallman’s Head of Christ? What’s your reaction to it? What do you read in Christ’s gaze? Do you think there are any dangers in depicting Jesus as “pretty,” or, on the contrary, do you think it’s necessary?