Whether we know it or not, Warner Sallman has influenced us.  We may not recognize his name, but most of us have seen his “Head of Christ,” the painting depicting a gentle white Jesus with blue eyes turned heavenward and dark blond hair cascading over his shoulders.

Sallman’s painting has been called the ‘best-known American artwork of the 20th century.”  It’s been reproduced a billion times, and has defined what Jesus looked like for generations of Christians, both in the United States and beyond.

The famed image began as a charcoal sketch.  Sallman sold the original to a religious publisher and in 1940 a Protestant icon was born.  The image spread quickly and was circulated on prayer cards by organizations, missionaries and many churches: Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and mainline, white and black.

Prayer cards accompanied soldiers into battle during World War II, and were handed out by the Salvation Army and YMCA.  The image appeared on pencils, bookmarks, lamps and clocks.  It was hung in courtrooms, police stations, libraries, schools and of course churches. It has even been called a “photograph of Jesus.”

The problem is, for too long it has crowded out other depictions of Jesus.

During our national reckoning over racism, discomfort with Sallman’s work has grown.  Such critique offers a lens, through which white Christians can see that white Jesus is a product of white culture and white theology.

Depicting Jesus only as white has theological implications. It narrows our understanding of Jesus.  When we explore Jesus as black or brown or Asian or Indigenous, we’re saying that Jesus’ incarnation is the way God identifies with all people everywhere.

The New Testament doesn’t tell us what Jesus looked like.  It does emphasize his identity as a Jew and a descendant of David.  Which means Jesus must have looked the same as just about everyone else in Palestine; dark-skinned, black-haired.

It’s time to embrace the splendor of our Savior, in every hue.  To envision our Redeemer in a color other than our own.  To welcome brown-skinned Jesus into our homes and lives, and into our church.

How attached are you to a white Jesus? How might you start to deconstruct this image in your mind and heart in order to welcome additional or more realistic ones?

-Written by Rev. Ann Palmerton

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  1. Jim Wilson April 7, 2021 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Perhaps we need to revisit the images in our own stained glass windows?

    • Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      Jim, indeed! We’re called to name BSPC’s history and also to have honest conversation about the church’s witness and identity now.

  2. Linda Pratt April 7, 2021 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    I reasoned long ago that Jesus had to be dark skinned and dark haired because of his heritage and place of birth. I’ve always considered the portrait by Sallman to be a figment of his imagination which white people accepted as a correct depiction. I’ve never questioned it myself until now. Thank you for your blog it’s definitely thought provoking.

    • Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:33 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome, Linda…I’m glad you’re engaging with this blog!

  3. Laura Ball April 7, 2021 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Love this post.

  4. Christopher B Carver April 7, 2021 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    This could be an incredibly powerful opportunity to leverage the physical and spiritual position of our church. Whether an art exhibit focused on “images of Jesus” to efforts to have more inclusive iconography in and around the church, now feels to be the time to support an improved understanding of the reality around our view of Jesus and the Church. Wonderful blog Ann, thank you!

    • Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:38 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Christopher…I’ll share your ideas with others!

  5. Joanne Kosanke April 7, 2021 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    I remember the winning image of Jesus for year 2000 from the National Catholic Reporter. Janet McKenzie’s was selected, Jesus of the People.

    • Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Yes! Janet McKenzie’s depiction of Jesus of the People is powerful: http://janetmckenzie.com/joppage1.html
      Here’s the description given:
      “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus – dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.”

      Ms. McKenzie’s position as winner has been life-altering as well as humbling. Her goal was to create a work of art in keeping with her beliefs as a person and artist, and inclusive of groups previously uncelebrated in His image especially African Americans and women. She hoped “Jesus of the People” might remind that we all are created in God’s likeness. The worldwide welcoming celebration of this interpretation of Jesus and the gratitude expressed to her, as well as the onslaught of negative responses, affirm her belief that this work, this particular vision of Jesus, was meant to exist now.

  6. Rosemary Tolliver April 7, 2021 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Inspired by this blog entry and the recollection of a black & white sketch I admired several years ago, I googled “laughing Jesus.” Soooo many images popped up! The “neutral” sketch I remembered was there among way too many white guys. Thanks for the lesson on Sallman — which I think of in my head as “the Sunday School Jesus.” I’m thankful that I’ve never noticed it hanging at BSPC.

    • Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      Yes, “the Sunday School Jesus” for sure. Thanks for sharing “laughing Jesus”… that reminds me what a great storyteller he was!

  7. Betty Lou Stull April 7, 2021 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    I’m remembering Salvador Dali’s interpretation of Jesus which made an impact on me. And we have a portrait of a laughing Jesus that I love, in addition to the problem of skin color, Sallmon’s Jesus is way too pious!

  8. Marlane Nibert April 7, 2021 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    I always felt uncomfortable when I would see Sallmon’s image hanging in people’s homes. I didn’t think you needed a picture. I also felt the same about the stained glass windows in my home church. I wonder if they will ever be changed out.

  9. Julie Smith April 8, 2021 at 9:08 am - Reply

    Thank you for this blog post and explaining Christ’s historical depiction in America, as White Eurocentric. I happened to be traveling through Detroit several years ago and saw an billboard for a Rembrandt exhibit called “The Face of Jesus”, as noted in the article below, and stopped in to see it. It was an enlightening and moving exhibit where I learned that in the 1650’s, Rembrandt broke with the traditional regal, Eurocentric depiction of Jesus and used his Sephardic Jewish neighbors as models and rendered paintings of Christ in as more empathetic, humble and relatable.

    I found this so interesting, ground breaking and potentially risky for Rembrandt, especially with the history of Jewish persecution in Europe. I agree it’s important to understand and honor depictions of Christ that reflect the believer and and their ethnic and cultural heritage. Thank you for pointing this out in your blog post! The Black Church documentary on PBS is also very insightful related to this topic.

    Perhaps we could consider a commission for an artwork to add to the sanctuary that depicts various ethnic and cultural interpretations of how believers imagine Christ to look.

  10. Ann Palmerton April 9, 2021 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    Julie, thanks for sharing your experience of the Rembrandt exhibit with us. I’ll share your idea with others!

  11. Judith Siehl April 11, 2021 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Ann, for this blog post. I’ve seen the Sallmann portrait in more than one church or Sunday School, including in my childhood church. I’m grateful that the past few years and especially recently we’ve been called to look at racism in all its forms. Uncomfortable at times, but it’s a small price for me as a white person to pay compared to the daily wounds racism causes for our BIPOC neighbors, friends, and family.

  12. Desiree Shannon June 7, 2021 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    It’s nice to see more authentic renderings of Jesus than the standard “Jesus as young Eric Clapton” portrayals we’re all used to.

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