Arts, Culture, and Diversity: The Warner Sallman Collection

Art has great power. It can consciously and unconsciously inform our worldview, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. It can represent important ideas; portraits represent people. Often art  captures both at once. A painting or sculpture that photographs human form can be the most compelling of all art forms. Art is a language that can speak as powerfully and persuasively as any sequence of words and phrases. 

Religious art can be especially influential. It can merge history, culture, experience, theology, sociology, and transcendent values all into a single image. Christian art has, across twenty centuries, been framed in this way. From an ancient Orthodox icon to a Sri Lankan wood-carved Virgin and Child to a Chinese textile woven for Christian worship to a Coptic or Ethiopian church building in Africa to the widely acclaimed indigenous collection Our Mob, God’s Story (featuring aboriginal biblical art from Australia) to a European Renaissance classic, culture, and context have often birthed Christian art in the image of the artist, even as that art has defined culture. 

Warner Sallman was born in the late 19th century. He was both a commercial artist and a man of deep Christian faith. Over time, he produced hundreds of pieces of religious art, working in several mediums (including oil paint, pastels, pen and ink, and watercolors). His most famous and signature works feature Jesus, interpreted as a man he imagined in his own world, dressed in first century garb. His Head of Christ is thought to be the most recognized image of Jesus in the world. In this oil painting, Jesus appears as a white man with brown hair and dark blue eyes; his complexion is fair, but tanned. This image has been hailed as an inspired gift and panned as a “Nordic Christ,” the “Scandinavian Savior.” It has also been criticized as a “white supremacist’s Jesus.” 

We do not believe that Warner Sallman conceived his Head of Christ as an emblem of white supremacy.  As with his other representations of Jesus on canvas, Sallman’s art reflected the world in which he walked—a largely homogenous community of white Americans (and his immigrant family of Swedish and Finnish descent). Throughout history, biblical characters have been represented as if they mirrored the culture and context of the artist. Finding ourselves—seeing ourselves—in the complexion and eyes of Jesus is not, alone, an error.  The error is in the assumption that He looks like us alone and not allowing for others to find themselves in the face of Jesus, as well.

The Scripture makes no mention of how Jesus looked, his height, physical stature, or color of skin. We can assume His was the ethnicity of the Semitic peoples of which his Jewish heritage was a part. But, even this is not a clear descriptor of how He must have looked. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit, the editor and ultimate author of the Word, meant it to be so, so that we ever after would not be detoured by the Lord’s appearance as we learn to love and trust Him.

Our problem is not that Sallman painted Jesus white so much as it is white majority culture has sometimes by design or default imposed its image on everyone else, failing to recognize the dignity and equality of others also created in the image of God. One ethnic image of Christ cannot stand alone; all ethnicities reflect the wonder of God our Maker and “the Word become flesh” (John 1:14)

The message of white supremacy and the message of Jesus are wholly incompatible. There is no teaching of Christ nor is their any New Testament passage that can birth, defend, or sustain racism of any kind, including white supremacy. There are no questions about this, in our view. There are no “but’s,” “what-about’s” or “if’s.” Racism is sin and must be repugnant to all who profess Jesus as Lord. 

Anderson University and Warner Press (which together own the rights to Sallman’s iconic Head of Christ), together with the Church of God (which gave birth to both) welcome visitors to view the original painting as part of the Sallman Collection at the University’s Scheierman Gallery. As we do so, however, we unequivocally stand for the truth that Jesus cannot be represented on canvas or in any other medium by one ethnicity alone, that the Head of Christ is one depiction of the Savior, but not the only one, and that we treasure other artistic representations of Him in a wide variety of styles and hues. These also are displayed on campus and in our affiliated churches worldwide.  We repudiate any use of Sallman’s work to promote white supremacy or any other ideology at odds with the Gospel. We stand with the Scripture that says, “God does not show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35) 

Anderson University is on a mission to educate students for lives of faith and service, offering more than 60 undergraduate majors, 30 three-year degrees, 20 NCAA Division III intercollegiate sports, alongside adult and graduate programs. The private, liberal arts institution is fully accredited and recognized among top colleges for its business, computer science, cybersecurity, dance, engineering, nursing, and teacher education programs. Anderson University was established in 1917 in Anderson, Indiana, by the Church of God.

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