Tag Archives: iconography

The Face Is Familiar

In Western art, the one individual depicted more than any other is  Jesus of Nazareth.  Even though I don’t have statistics to back up that statement, it’s a reasonable assumption, don’t you think?  Jesus has been a subject of paintings almost since the invention of paint, and because artists were commissioned by the Church for centuries, different images of Jesus must number in the thousands.  (That does not include apparitions of Christ on grilled cheese sandwiches or tree stumps.)  Some of the most memorable art objects in history, and by the most renowned artists, feature Jesus:  just to name a couple, there are Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s “Pietà”.

The one image that has been reproduced more than any other, though, is by an artist whose name you probably don’t know.  If you have ever set foot in a Protestant Sunday School or church social hall, especially in the southern or midwestern United States, it’s highly likely you have seen “The Head of Christ” by Warner E. Sallman.  Estimates vary, but a 2007 article in Newsweek pegged the total number of copies of this painting at a billion.  Yes — billion, with a b.  That number includes reproductions on clocks, coffee mugs, lamps, calendars, and other objects of religious devotion.

Sallman was a Chicago commercial artist; a charcoal illustration he sketched in 1924 for a denominational publication was the prototype for the famous oil painting he did in 1940 — the one shown here. 

During World War II, pocket-sized reproductions were given away to soldiers and sailors by the YMCA and the Salvation Army; presses churned out tens of thousands of them.  In the 1950s, framed prints of “The Head of Christ” showed up on the walls of libraries, schools, and community centers in addition to churches.  The painting became so popular, hardly anyone stopped to wonder why.

Among those who did wonder why were art critics, who pointed out that Sallman’s painting was not in the tradition of great religious art.  I suspect that may have been a big part of its appeal.

The thousands of art works in which Jesus had previously figured usually put him in a scene:  He was a baby in a manger, or a suffering savior on a cross, or an unearthly figure working a miracle of some sort.  There were a few “portraits” (the Met has a nice one attributed to Rembrandt), but in most cases, Jesus is shown in some activity; some historical context.  What was unusual about Sallman’s painting is that the subject doesn’t appear to be centuries old.  It looks like Jesus had his picture taken in a shopping mall.

Dr. David Morgan of Duke University wrote that the “…blurred contours and soft lighting recall the retouched studio photographs that replaced portrait paintings in the 19th century.”  Erika Doss, an art historian at Notre Dame, remarked that “‘The Head of Christ’ is a pose common to high school yearbooks.”

One might also quibble that Warner Sallman, who was of Swedish descent, has made Jesus look sort of Scandinavian in this painting.  What may have turned it into an iconic image, though, is that Christ was presented to the viewer as more or less a contemporary.  That idea of Jesus as a friend — someone whose picture you could carry in your wallet — seems to have been powerfully attractive to 20th century Protestants.

What Are You Lookin’ At?

Veneziano, Virgin and Child with Saints (detail).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Veneziano, Virgin and Child with Saints (detail). Uffizi Gallery, Florence

That’s the challenge every art object makes:  as you stand before it, what is it that you’re seeing?  That doesn’t apply only to abstract works, or to some of the nonsense being passed off as contemporary “art”.  “I’m seeing a beaker of urine,” you might say, “and frankly, I’d rather not.”

For many centuries, artists only had a couple of ways to make money.  One was from wealthy patrons who would commission them to do portraits or works with mythological themes — a good excuse for the rich guys to have paintings of naked babes in their game rooms.  The other potential source of income for, say, a painter in the 15th century, was decorative/devotional works for churches.  In effect, these were Bible stories for illiterates.  The faithful who came to services couldn’t read, but if the painter was skillful, the worshiper could see the drama of Jonah disappearing into the whale, or the anguish of Mary at the Deposition (taking Jesus down from the cross).

Over time, a “language” of symbols developed, one that painters learned and viewers came to understand.  As we look at a medieval painting today, we know that the guys wearing gold frisbees on their heads are supposed to be saints.  That’s part of the iconography, which is the fancy word for the subjects and symbols that constitute the characters of the language of religious painting.

You can usually assume that a woman holding a baby with a halo is probably the Virgin Mary, but another way to identify Mary is the color of her attire:  in most cases she’ll be wearing red and blue.  That practice began around the sixth century or so, and by the tenth century it had become part of the visual language.  There are occasonal exceptions, but red and blue is the Mary tradition.

So who are those other people gathered around Mary in a painting we’ve encountered at a museum or a chapel?  OK, if the man has a key (or keys) that’s Peter — a literal interpretation of Jesus granting to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  A man holding what looks like a walking stick with a little cross on the top is John the Baptist.  A woman holding a jar of ointment is Mary Magdalene, not a Mary Kaye cosmetics sales representative.  If Andrew is in the painting, the clue is a transverse cross (X) on his person somewhere.  By tradition, that was the means of his martyrdom.

The attributes of saints from post-Biblical times are often associated with the way in which they were martyred.  Paintings of St. Lucy, for example, almost always show her holding a plate with her eyes on it.  Just based on that, you can probably guess how she earned her palm frond.  (A palm frond is often used as a symbol for a martyr.)

I could go on, but I sense your cursor finger starting to twitch.  Next time you’re in a museum or gallery, though, take a moment to study that religious-themed painting.  See if you can pick up any of the visual clues to the identities of the subjects.  Ask yourself what certain enigmatic objects in the painting might symbolize.  Either that, or skim the little plaque that’s beside the painting and quickly move on.  That’s OK, too.