The Face of The Real Jesus

Warner Sallman’s Painting: Jesus Knocks

Between our pew and the pulpit, two white ceiling fans above the center aisle stirred the tepid June air. Beyond the walls the hymnal voices of a few dozen churchgoers were audible only to God and the few head of cattle grazing nearby in green pastures beyond the stained glass of Huffville Church. My gaze drifted past the minister’s voice to the picture on the wall behind him.

Surely it had been there in that little country church for decades: how could I have not seen it for the six months we’ve been going there most Sundays? It was so very familiar–a visual cliché–that I must have seen it, but didn’t become aware of it until today.

The very same picture hung in a remarkably similar church we once were part of–more a part perhaps than any other church we’ve attended. In the tiny sanctuary of Berea Christian Church, our adjoining neighbor to our little farm in Wythe County. This same picture of a smooth-browed Jesus in radiant robes hung behind that pulpit as well.

His dark brown hair flowed over his shoulder while he knocked at the door–a substantial wooden door lacking an outside latch (only the one inside can open it), overgrown with thorny, unpruned roses. And if anyone will answer…

I remembered this same familiar face, robes and kind demeanor going back more than a half-century. I always wondered, when my mother told me there were no photographs from Christ’s day, how somebody could just make up the face of God. Did he really look like that? Until yesterday, I knew nothing about this oh-so-common icon of the faith.

Head of Christ, Warner Sallman, 1940It is an image that for millions has become the face of the historical Jesus. Frankly, I always questioned even as a child, what with his walking through treeless and dusty terrain and sleeping on the ground, if He was not likely so clean as this picture.

(Theologically speaking, though, this depiction would be the risen Christ in his perfected body, yes?) And didn’t most of the men over in that part of the world have black hair, not brown? Would that make OUR Christ too unCaucasian for Western tastes?

Yet, it is this artist’s vision that paints the picture of the Son of God in our heads and hearts–the work of a certain Warner E. Sallman. He created a charcoal sketch in 1924 he called “the Son of Man” and from that created a color painting, The Head of Christ, in 1940. It was a kinder, gentler Jesus than the more austere countenance’s imagined by his Victorian predecessors, “accessible and reassuring” in a very troubled time. And that face has become an industry of sorts.

This Head of a European-looking sepia-toned Christ has not been without its detractors, seen by some as too effeminate, and once displayed next to a shampoo advertisement comparing the holy coif with that of the famous Breck girl’s.

But in the end, American Protestants have made Sallman’s Jesus our own, with more than half a billion reproductions to date. Has the Good Shepherd thus been marketed and commodified? Perhaps. But we must imagine some countenance when holding any person in our minds.

And it seems likely that no single face of God has been held in common by so many believers in my lifetime–believers who, when they have a friend in Jesus, walk and talk with this one bronzed and bearded face I saw again today behind the pulpit once again, for the first time.

See at Amazon: Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I suspect he had long curly black hair, but we do not know that. I also felt he should have more often been portrayed as a happy, laughing Christ, surrounded by small children. We know he went to weddings and other happy gatherings. Dusty paths and open sandals meant much foot-washing when he arrived.

  2. Thank you for sharing your memories, thoughts, and information about this famous, memorable painting of Christ. So many of us have similar memories and thoughts, yet they don’t get mentioned in this era. I would like to see a photo of a Victorian painting that you referred to. And, as to Marion’s wish for a laughing Christ, I have seen many times a more contemporary portrait of Jesus laughing,which I would guess is the most popular modern picture of him.

  3. Hello! I found your website. My name is Anders Branderud and I am from Sweden.
    I would just like to write some words.

    Who then was the historical J*esus.
    Probably he had short hair.

    I am a follower of Ribi Yehoshua — Mashiakh — who practiced Torah including Halakhah with all his heart.
    He was born in Betlehem 7 B.C.E . His faher name was Yoseiph and mother’s name was Mir′ yâm. He had twelve followers. He tought in the Jewish batei-haknesset (synagogues). Thousands of Jews were interested in His Torah-teachings. Some Jews who didn’t practice Judaism where threatened. They decided to crucify him. So they did – together with the Romans. His followers were called Netzarim (meaning offshoots [of a olive tree]) and they continued to pray with the other Jews in the synagogues.

    Christianity does not teach the teachings of Ribi Yehoshua. Ribi Yehoshuas teachings were pro-Torah; Christianity is anti-Torah.

    If you want to learn more click at our website — than click at the lick “Christians”

    Hasheim — the Creator of the universe — loves you. If you want to have a relation with Him you need to follow His Torah non-selectively.

    Be blessed when you practice Hasheims Torah and His mitzwot!

    Anders Branderud
    Follower of Ribi Yehoshua in Orthodox Judaism

  4. I have a small postcard size picture of Jesus laughing and that’s how I like to picture Him. To me, it doesn’t matter what He looked like. . . just that He was and is forevermore.