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
Did you enjoy this blog post? Be sure to leave a comment and share the link with your friends on Facebook!