When I was a child, our church, First Baptist Church in Freeport, IL, had the famous picture of Jesus. The popular pronunciation for the art was “Solomon’s Head of Christ.” Which of course was, and still is, wrong. The painting was by Warner E. Sallman, and so we should have been saying “Sallman’s Head of Christ.” A collection of his art now is on display at North Park University, and I’m finding it fascinating.
Sallman’s paintings, some of the originals of which have hung for years in Covenant churches, have been some of the most popular in the history of the American Church. In fact, just from Warner E. Sallman’s paintings one could make the case that the Protestant Evangelical movement is not nearly as “anti-iconic” as some have claimed. That famous head of Christ creates, for the one who looks into and through it long enough (as we were nearly forced to by its presence in our church), a form of devotional piety — a solitude, a steadfastness, and a gruesome reality that Jesus would go to the Cross no matter the cost.
Not as famous, but still present throughout the churches, is Christ at Heart’s Door, Christ in the Garden (we have a big oil painting of this in our display), and The Lord is My Shepherd.
Because such pictures are, in fact, intended or not, iconic, they create a vision of Jesus and a vision of piety — and therein lies a problem for the facial features of Jesus here are Western and European, idealized to boot, and not Eastern or Middle Eastern. Scholarly research has argued forcibly that Jesus did not have a long Gothic face and neither did he have blue eyes or light skin.
Still, I’ll always cherish “Solomon’s” head of Christ, in part because first impressions do not go away.