Newspaper article The Canadian Press

The Man Who Painted Jesus

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

The Man Who Painted Jesus

Article excerpt

The man who painted Jesus


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Author: Matthew Robert Anderson, Affiliate Professor, Theological Studies, Loyola College for Diversity & Sustainability; Teaching Affiliate, University of Nottingham UK, Concordia University

April 30 is the 127th birthday of an artist whose name you probably don't know, but his work may be the most widely distributed of the 20th century. Despite never leaving Chicago, Warner Sallman influenced how many Christians the world over, for better or worse, picture Jesus.

Anderson University in Indiana holds Sallman's collected works. Their collection notes explain how images like Sallman's may be objects of beauty, historical artefacts, mementos, articles of piety or propaganda in the service of an ideology. The truth is that religious images can serve all these purposes.

They can also sell products.

Reproductions of Sallman's warm, sympathetic, Nordic and very much non-historical "Head of Christ" hang in churches of every sort, and in confessional schools and hospitals on every continent. In his book, Icons of American Protestantism David Morgan of Valparaiso University in Indiana tells how millions of pocket-sized "Heads of Christ" cards were handed out by the YMCA and Salvation Army during the Second World War and carried to Europe and Asia by U.S. soldiers.

Sallman was a freelance illustrator and a devout member of the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church. One of Sallman's 1924 black and white sketches for the Covenant Companion magazine received such praise he painted it in oils, creating, in 1940, the "Christ" that would go on to sell 500 million copies. That number multiplied exponentially when reproductions started appearing on clocks, lamps, buttons, laminated Bible verses, music boxes and night-lights. When the "Head of Christ" became a hit, Sallman followed up with "Christ at Heart's Door," and "Christ our Pilot."

Mass produced kitsch

Already in the 1930s, there was a long tradition of "Caucasian Jesus portraits" just as there had been, since the mid-18th century, literary "lives of Jesus." These "lives" tended to portray Christ as representing the best of European (male) culture.

Visual images of Jesus painted by Europeans reflected those who painted him; only on rare occasions, such as when Jesus was portrayed as a red-headed youth, did historians object. From the time of the ancient Romans, Christians have always "contextualized" Jesus in their own image.

What changed in the 20th century with Sallman, was that Jesus images met American advertising and mass production. …

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