Chicago native Warner Sallman is the twentieth century religious artist responsible for perhaps one of the most widely recognized and reproduced images in the world, The Head of Christ. This painting, as well as many of his other religious works, have epitomized and solidified the West’s idea of a beautiful, idealized, and physically Westernized Jesus and other Biblical figures; images that have come to be known throughout the world.
Born in Chicago on April 30, 1892, Sallman was impacted by religious art at a very young age, particularly by the religious prints of Gustave Doré. After completing high school, Sallman apprenticed at many local studios while attending the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating, the young man began a career as a commercial artist, until he was encouraged by a business associate to enroll at the Moody Bible Institute.
Sallman became deeply involved with the Evangelist Covenant Church of Chicago and contributed his artistic talents to many of their publications. While there, the dean of the institute, Dr. E.O. Sellers, made a great impact on Sallman’s future religious images, asking him to create a more masculine image of Christ, as many other images of his day depicted Him in a very effeminate manner. It was the year 1924 that would change Sallman’s life as an artist, as well as, the way the world would view Christ.
The young man illustrated regularly for the Salvation Army’s publication War Cry and his Evangelist community’s Covenant Companion. It was for an issue of the youth publication Mission Covenant that this famous image of Christ first came to be when he was asked to create a cover illustration. Uninspired and frustrated, the artist waited until the night before the deadline to design the cover, only to wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect image of Christ’s face. He quickly sketched his image in simple charcoal and titled it Son of Man. At publication time the work was well received, and Sallman continued to draw and paint religious themes. By 1940, his original charcoal sketch had become so popular that he was motivated to turn it into an oil painting. This was birth of the blond haired, blue-eyed Christ that is present today in millions of homes, churches, and other institutions around the world. It was titled The Head of Christ.
The painting’s image began to spread rapidly after its creation, first among the Southern Baptist community and then to other Christian denominations. It was even used by the Protestant church, known for their general disapproval of religious imagery. The Head of Christ began to appear on church bulletins, posters, calendars, prayer cards, clocks, lamps, and, perhaps most importantly, wallet-sized images distributed by the Salvation Army to thousands of servicemen during WWII. Sallman continued to paint as The Head of Christ’s popularity steadily grew, his most popular works painted between 1942 and 1950.
Today, the image of The Head of Christ can be found throughout the world, including Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe. The painting was also featured on the cover of the July 9, 2007 issue of Newsweek where it was stated that the image had been reproduced over one billion times, making it the most reproduced image in history. The image, as well as many other images from Sallman’s 500 original works, comprised of landscapes, portraits, and other religious paintings, is owned by Warner Press and Anderson University. The original works themselves, including sketches and drawings, are scattered across the United States and various other countries in churches, homes, schools, hospitals, and the private collection of the Sallman family.
At one point in his career, Sallman stated that he gave God “the glory for whatever has been accomplished by [his] efforts to bring joy and happiness to people throughout the world.” While this serene yet strong image of Christ, as well as figures in his other religious works, bring joy and inspiration to many people, it can be said that his art is the epitome of the West’s view of Christ and the saints. The light skin and blond hair of Jesus, as well as that of Mary and Joseph and other worshiped figures of the Bible, illustrates the spread of Christianity as far back as medieval Europe when negative figures like Judas and King Herod were depicted with darker skin, consistent with the skin tones of the Jewish population who were then strongly blamed for the crucifixion of Christ.
Sallman’s religious paintings, particularly The Head of Christ and its light tones, capture the saintly, Christian ideal and consistent view of Christ and other Biblical figures throughout the West and many other parts of the world. It is these ideals so masterfully illustrated in The Head of Christ that has made it one of the most popular and well-known images of the 20th century.
Written and researched by Alexandra Nilles.
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