THE HEAD OF CHRIST
Warner Elias Sallman, a first-generation American (his parents were immigrants from Finland and Sweden), sang in his local church choir in Chicago. It was there he met his wife, Ruth in 1916. He was an artist who apprenticed with some of the best local illustrators and painters during the day, while attending the Chicago Art Institute at night. In 1924 he was commissioned by a denominational magazine for a charcoal sketch of the head of Jesus.
Using a physical description of Jesus, supposedly written by a Publius Lentulus (Roman Consul during the reign of Augustus, and Governor of Judea prior to Pontius Pilate), Warner followed the description set out by the letter and sketched a head. Here is an excerpt from the letter (there are several questions about its authenticity, however, it is the only physical description available):
“…He is a man of medium size, he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the color of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the color of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin…”
A few years later he turned his several sketches into an oil painting, he was asked to replicate that painting for another group, and executives from The Warner Press Company (publishing arm of The Church of God) first saw it then. Warner Press created an arm of their company, which would own the copyrights and distribute copies of the painting. For the next 30 years Sallman’s HEAD OF CHRIST was distributed throughout the world. Churches, clubs, service organizations all used this remarkable portrait. The USO printed small copies to be given to every soldier, sailor and airman who enlisted. Eventually it become the most recognized and popular picture of Jesus known. Warner Press eventually acquired total rights to this and some 100 other well-known, and not-so-well-known paintings, sketches and illustrations by Warner Sallman…and all of them, including the HEAD OF CHRIST, are right her in Anderson, Indiana where Anderson University regularly displays them in their galleries.
For many, this is the picture that comes to mind when someone says the name, “Jesus”. It is the product of a questionable description and a gifted Christian artist…but it is not Jesus.
This beautiful painting should serve as a reminder, to all who believe and follow, that God is not to be so narrowly defined that we would refuse to get to know Him. The scripture, specifically the Gospels in the books of the New Covenant, remind us that Jesus-in-the-flesh stepped into a church that had SO NARROWLY defined God that they not only didn’t recognize Him when He stepped into their church, THEY CONSIDERED HIM THEIR ENEMY. The church spends a lot of time defining God, refining His mind, His preferences, His “rules”…so much so, that any time God does something out-of-the-ordinary (“para physin”, as Paul would say) or blesses/calls/sends/annoints someone whom other “Christians” would consider inappropriate…then they/the church once again has created God in ITS image, and not visa versa.
The vastness of greatness and personality, the unfathomable mercy, love and grace that comes from our Heavenly Father is, to our minds, limitless…surprising…uncomfortable. And that is as it should be. We who Believe & Follow need to be reminded that is our calling: to BELIEVE and FOLLOW, not define and lead-by-proxy. God will love and bless whom He loves and blesses. He will call into His Kingdom anyone of His choosing. He is not defined by our limited understanding of love, mercy or justice. He is not to be framed as a painting, but to be sought after as a friend who surprises us daily with new facets of His personality.
To be a creative and visual learner is to constantly seek after images that help define our thought and philosophy. But when it comes to assuming what God does and does not think, we need to tread very, very carefully. Because there would be some churches, even with Warner Sallman’s HEAD OF CHRIST hanging in the narthex, who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he stood among them sharing coffee and conversation.
Our calling is not to define God, but to believe and follow Him…wherever HE chooses to go.