The Mystery of Christ, According to Sallman

by Craig E. Anderson

I serve as a member of the board of the Warner E. Sallman Art Collection, Inc. The Sallman organization’s purpose is to preserve the legacy of the artist and to collect and display his religious art. Sallman is of special interest to those of us who belong to the Covenant Church because he was a lifelong Covenanter who lived in the North Park community of Chicago and was an active member of the former Edgewater Covenant Church.

When mentioning my involvement on this board, a pastor friend once gave me a kind of sideways look as if to say, “You’re not really into the religious art of Warner Sallman, are you?” Sallman has not always received good reviews. No one denies the popularity of his world-famous Head of Christ. Newsweek magazine recently said that over a billion copies of that painting have been reproduced and distributed around the world. But Sallman has his critics. The criticism is usually of two kinds. One has to do with the quality of the art; the other has to do with his decidedly northern European portrayal of Christ.

I am not an artist or an art critic; so I am not skilled to evaluate the artistic strengths or weakness of Sallman’s work. It should be said, however, that Sallman was professionally trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although this does not guarantee the greatness of his art, it does suggest that the artist received excellent instruction in the development of his natural gift. Many of us admire his work, but assessment of artistic ability is best left to the art critics. Needless to say, when comparisons are made they are made to some of the greatest religious artworks in the history of the western world.

Our commitment to honor Sallman and his religious art is not driven by a desire to suggest that his work rivals that of, say, Raphael or Rembrandt, although we do want him to be taken seriously. Rather we pay tribute to his memory and work because his art has touched the lives of countless people in America and throughout the world. It is meaningful to so many perhaps because it points to Christ as “our Friend,” a theme integral to the Swedish Lutheran Pietism in which Sallman was grounded. Two hymns that have endeared themselves to ordinary Christians down through the years, “Amazing Grace” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” are not hymns that rival the great cantatas of J.S. Bach or even the hymns of Wesley or Watts. They are treasured because they continue to speak to the religious experience of so many Christians. So it is with Sallman’s Head of Christ and his other paintings of Jesus. Whatever the assessment of art critics, it is not the whole story.

It should also be noted that Sallman’s art is illustrative art, something Sallman himself understood. Jack R. Lundbom, in his biography Master Painter: Warner E. Sallman, writes: “Sallman was an illustrator. He did not work through art dealers, but with religious publishing firms who were in the business of producing inspirational literature.” Lundbom quotes David Morgan, another Sallman scholar, who says that Sallman’s “chosen vocation was not ‘fine artist’ but illustrator; his preferred audience was not the cultured elites of the art world but devout Christians.”

Another criticism is that Sallman’s Head has a distinctively northern European, perhaps even Scandinavian, appearance. That should not be surprising, to the degree that it is true, since most art reflects the context and piety of the artist. Surely that is true of other significant religious art. Sallman was an American of Swedish heritage, a fact that may well have influenced his portrayal of Christ. We see and celebrate depictions of Christ that reflect a diversity of ethnicities and cultures. It is important that the art communicate with its viewers.

I served as pastor of an integrated church in Chicago for a time. For years the church had a large picture of Sallman’s Head of Christ in the chancel of our sanctuary. 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. 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.

A favorite poet, Denise Levertov, writes in one of her poems—

All these images (said the old monk,
closing the book) these inspired depictions
are true. Yes—not one—Giotto’s,
Van Eyck’s, Rembrandt’s, Rouault’s,
How many others’—
Not one is a fancy, a willed fiction,
each of them shows us exactly
the manifold countenance
of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
. . . . . . . Each at work in his art,
perceived his neighbor. Thus the Infinite
plays, and in grace
gives us clues to His mystery.

Those of us dedicated to preserving the art and legacy of Warner E. Sallman are not suggesting that his images of Christ are normative or that they rank with the greatest art of all time, though we believe he was a gifted painter. Our appreciation and advocacy for Sallman’s work stems from its popularity and influence. It is art that belongs to the people. And it is the handiwork of a devout Christian, a man of deep faith and sincere piety. We remember Sallman as a kind, humble, unassuming artist that was given neither to self-promotion nor self-congratulation. Those qualities give added integrity to his art and are a part of his legacy. His great desire was to illuminate the mystery of the loving Christ and to lead others to trust this One who had befriended him.

(For further information about the work of the Warner E. Sallman Art Collection Inc, contact its president, the Rev. LeRoy Carlson, 5911 N. Bernard Street, Chicago, Illinois 60659. Donations of Sallman original art are welcomed and will be preserved as a part of the collection.)