CHICAGO, IL (October 29, 2015) — This year marks the 75th anniversary of perhaps the most recognized and influential painting of the 20th century, the “Head of Christ,” by Covenanter Warner Sallman.
A 1994 New York Times article titled “The Man Who Rendered Jesus for the Age of Duplication” declared, “With the race for best-known artist of the century nearly over, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol are running neck and neck, with Andrew Wyeth a respectable third. But when the official tally is made, all three are likely to be buried in a landslide vote for Warner E. Sallman.”
The article continues that the “ ‘Head of Christ’ achieved a mass popularity that makes Warhol’s soup can seem positively obscure.”
The image has been reproduced more than 500 million times, yet Sallman lost the vote for best-known artist. “No one knows Sallman, but they know the ‘Head of Christ,’ ” said LeRoy Carlson, president of the Warner E. Sallman Art Collection. He travels around the country giving presentations on the artist.
Sallman first drew the image in charcoal in 1924 for the cover of the new Mission Covenant youth publication, The Covenant Companion. At the time, he titled it “The Son of Man.” After the drawing gained notice in wider circles, Sallman, who worked as a professional illustrator, painted the oil version in 1940, calling it “Head of Christ.”
For several decades, Sallman drew or painted the picture while he shared his faith at Covenant congregations. Many of those images can still be seen hanging in churches across the country.
It was during World War II that the painting gained international notice. Through the USO, the Salvation Army and YMCA handed out pocket versions of the painting to soldiers as they left to fight in Europe and Asia. By the mid 1940s, prints of the painting were hanging in every room of several hospitals across the country, wrote Jack Lundbom, a Covenant minister, professor of religious studies, and the author of the book “Master Painter: Warner Sallman.” Another project, “Christ in Every Purse,” which was endorsed by President Eisenhower and Norman Vincent Peale among others, reproduced millions of cards that were shared worldwide.
It also has been reproduced on items such as buttons, stationery, coffee mugs, and clocks. The Åland Islands, an autonomous province of Finland, released it as a postage stamp. And earlier this year, Dixie Baptist Church in Clarkson, Michigan, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to restore the large sign with Sallman’s image and the words “Are you on the right road?” that has stood along I-75 for more than 40 years. The funding request says, “This sign is not just an advertisement or a public landmark. This sign is a tool to help spread the word of Christ.”
Scholar David Morgan wrote, “For generations of Christians, the ‘Head of Christ’ has represented the authentic portrait of Jesus.” He added that fans of the image and Sallman’s other works “find in them the mores, theology, social agenda, and the ecclesiastical self-image which he or she practices.”
The image was popular with people across the theological spectrum, from fundamentalist Christians to liberal Methodists. But after the 1950s, critics began to complain that the painting had so influenced culture that many people believe it reflects the “true image” of Christ, and that contributed to the idea of Jesus as a white man.
Craig Anderson, a retired Covenant pastor who serves on the board of the Warner Sallman Art Collection, said that although he is a great admirer of the artist’s work, he understands the criticism. The former assistant superintendent of the Central Conference wrote in an article for the Pietisten that the painting had been the source of tension in an integrated church he had pastored in Chicago.
“For years the church had a large picture of Sallman’s ‘Head of Christ’ in the chancel of our sanctuary,” he wrote. “The other co-pastor and I determined that this rendition of Christ was less appropriate as a worship symbol since our community now was predominantly African-American. We replaced it with a cross, although a depiction of Christ with an African appearance would have been fitting also.
“The decision to make the change was not easy for some of the older members of the church for reasons of preference and custom, but most agreed that it was the right thing to do. Our goal was to make our church and worship welcoming to members of the community.”
Anderson added, “I believe Sallman would have resonated with that concern. Religious depictions of Christ often reflect the dominant culture of the community or the ethnicity of the artist.”