This is Warner Sallman’s painting Head of Christ from 1941. It’s an archetype. When an image or an idea becomes so ubiquitous that it becomes the model for most people’s understanding of the subject, it becomes an archetype. This is what most people think Jesus (Yeshua bar Yosef) looked like. Most people NOW, that is. For hundreds of years after his death, Jesus wasn’t even portrayed as having a beard.
This oil painting is the best-selling piece of commercial art ever produced. It has sold over 500 million copies. It has been reproduced in various sizes, and an untold additional number of unauthorized copies continue to be produced and distributed. In addition to paper and cloth copies, it adorns lamps, cups, coins, cards and clocks.
Warner Sallman was a boy at the turn of the 20th Century. He drew and painted from an early age, and he would have been well-aware of the iconographic images produced from the first photographic negatives of the Shroud of Turin published in 1898.
Sallman learned Commercial Art in Chicago, tried to make it in New York, failed and went back to Chicago. Commercial Art at that time was all about mainstreaming and simplifying difficult concepts in order to create images to sell products. Warner Sallman was thoroughly trained in how to do this, but he also happened to be very religious. He took night classes at a Bible school, where he had a talk with the dean about his being an artist. The dean encouraged him to use his talent to portray Jesus.
The image Sallman produced was a charcoal sketch first done as a magazine cover in 1924, and re-done in color in 1935. The image is successfully generic. It’s basically done in a photo-realistic style (for the time). There’s no natural background. It’s Jesus at the Sears Portrait Studio. Because the image doesn’t really challenge you, you are encouraged to substitute your own thought content for what’s going on in Jesus’ mind. In 1940, Sallman redid the image in oil. That’s the version you see above.
By being the right product at the right time, another extremely fortunate thing helped make the painting world-famous. It was reproduced in playing-card size and supplied to the GIs heading off to World War II by the Salvation Army, the YMCA and the USO. Serene, pensive, commercial art Jesus went all over the world. After the war, it returned to be placed in bookstores, churches, public libraries, schools, police departments, community centers, and even courtrooms. By the time I was born it was everywhere. I haven’t found any corroboration for this theory, but I choose to believe it was part of George Orwell’s inspiration for the posters of BIG BROTHER that are supplied to comfort the masses in the novel 1984 (written in 1948 at the peak popularity of the image). If I’m wrong, please don’t crucify me.
One thing is certain. The painting’s popularity determined the look required for Jesus in the movies and on TV for the three decades following its 1941 debut. Have a look:
You didn’t have to see the face at all in Ben Hur (1959). The audience could see the hair and would automatically supply the face in the Sallman painting.
Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) aka “I was a Teenage Jesus”.
The Greatest (maybe the longest) Story Ever Told (1963). Blonde, Swedish Max von Sydow was a pretty gloomy Jesus, but they still made him up to look like the painting.
One thing the 1977 Jesus of Nazareth miniseries had going for it was returning to the Sallman Jesus look by casting Robert Powell.
Though the Sallman version is still preferred by many believers of the generation in which it first became popular, later viewers have been re-examining the image in light of the fact that the Jesus of the painting does not look much like a Middle Easterner. The Lutheran Church of Finland commissioned an alternate version of the icon:
When I think about Jesus, I don’t have any particular look in mind. I prefer the mysticism of the attitude about answering the question of what Jesus looked like used in the Eastern Orthodox churches. When they give the Peace after the Offering at Mass, they look straight at you and say,
“In your eyes, I see the face of Jesus.”