The Sallman Head

Christianity has always been a creedal religion. It is rooted in the affirmations of faith found in scripture. These affirmations give focus to communities about the nature of God and what faith compels them to do. Creeds aren’t limited to religion—every group of humans creates them, from nation-states to the Rotary.

We are also an image-based species. We don’t handle abstracts very well; we like concrete things.

This series is going to examine images of Jesus in art and creed. What images of Jesus are we assuming and what words of the ancient creeds have shaped our understanding?

Creeds, like art, come from a particular time and place. They are formed in a context from a people. When the United Church of Christ formed, the founders stated that they were a non-creedal church. Sometimes, this is taken to mean that we’re anti-creedal. NO CREED BUT CHRIST was the cry of our ancestor denomination of the Christian Church, who later merged with the Congregationalists in the 1930s before forming the UCC in 1957. The Disciples of Christ as well as the Quakers could be considered anti-creedal and it’s fine if you are as well.

But non-creedal is not anti-creedal. It means that the local church can select their own creed or catechism to confess. Some local churches want the Apostles Creed, others the Nicene. Still others will choose the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession or the Cambridge Platform of 1648. Creeds give us the core values and tell the story of who we are as a people and how we see the world.

Consider a historical credo from Deuteronomy 26:5-9: “…you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Or Peter’s confession we read today when Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29). Peter is the first to name Jesus as the Messiah, the chosen one of God. However, it’s Thomas who is first to name him as God in John 20:28, “My Lord and My God” when shown the wounded hands and feet of Christ.

Or Paul’s letters, especially the creed confessed in Romans 8 how nothing in all of creation and beyond can separate us from the love of God found in Jesus Christ. These are creeds found right in scripture.

There is no physical description of Jesus given in the New Testament. There is little description of any of the characters or places in the gospels save that one-time Jesus made people sit down on the green grass in Mark 6:39, which is a subtle echo of Psalm 23.

Theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “The writers of the New Testament give no description of [Jesus] because it was His life alive inside them that was the news they told rather than the color of His eyes. Nobody tells us what he looked like, yet of course the New Testament itself is what He looked like, and we read his face there in the faces of all the ones He touched or failed to… You glimpse the mark of him in the faces of everyone who has ever looked toward him or away from Him, which means finally of course that you glimpse the mark of Him also in your face.”[1]

One popular painting of Jesus is here in our church. American Artist Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, also called the Sallman Head is by the chapel. Warner Sallman believed his initial sketch came from a miraculous vision at 2 a.m. in January 1924. The vision was a response to a prayer Sallman prayed in a “despairing situation.”[2] He painted it in 1940 and it was picked up by a Baptist Bookstore and made into prints. Eventually it was handed out to American servicemen heading overseas in WWII.

If this is your image of Jesus, great! It is very famous. It was in my grandparents home growing up and has been in the background of most of my life. Sometimes, I find myself picturing this Jesus when I’m at prayer.

Many Lutherans and Roman Catholic Christians have praised the painting for the hidden host on the forehead of Jesus and what looks like a chalice on his temple, symbols of communion. I’ve never noticed that before!

Yet a part of me knows that this is not what Middle Eastern people look like. Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Lebanese people look very different than this depiction and the context Jesus was born into. I sometimes jokingly call this American Jesus or WWII Jesus, but I still hold this painting in great esteem. It can’t be our only image of Jesus, however, for the second of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4). Our Jewish and Muslim kindred use beautiful script and wonderful symbols, but they take this commandment to heart. As did our Protestant pioneers like Ulrich Zwingli who smashed up the stained-glass windows of his chapel in Zurich and then chopped up and burned the wooden statues… roasting sausages over them during Lent just to make a point about idolatry.

While I confess I may be breaking the Second Commandment, I also hold this image loosely. I find this image grounding. I like the lighting of it. Jesus has a subtle halo, but not a Renaissance one that’s over the top. Some people have a light about them. A charisma they carry when they enter the room. I think Jesus must have had that as his first disciples just dropped everything and followed him when he asked.

I also like how Jesus is looking off to the side, like his vision is elsewhere. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said to Pilate. I wonder what vision he is seeing that we aren’t. A vision where we have beaten our swords into plowshares and we don’t learn war anymore. A world where every tear will be wiped away and death has lost its sting. A world where there are no outcasts, only neighbors and we have discovered that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free nor male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

It feels like a Mark depiction of Jesus, looking past the crowds and their expectation of him. Looking toward God’s kingdom and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. It provokes theological questions as well as some hope and comfort in me, and I think that’s a good thing.

I would love to hear your opinion on this painting. Maybe visit the Sallman Head hanging outside our chapel. How does it make you feel? I am excited to explore with you in this series and uncover more images and creeds. If you find one that resonates, great! If you find one you don’t like, great! Let us take our time and talk as neighbors about the face of Jesus we carry and the words we hold so dear. And may God be with us all. Amen.


Barrett, Lee and Betty Snapp-Barrett, Christianity and the Visual Arts, January 2008, Lancaster Theological School.

Leith, John H. Creeds of the Churches: A reader in Christian doctrine from the bible to the present, third edition. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY; 1982.

Tillich, Paul, A History of Christian Thought: From its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY; 1968.

Wikipedia contributors, “Head of Christ,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 20, 2022).

Works Cited

[1]Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus, The Columbus Dispatch Magazine, April 18, 1976. Special thanks to Dan and Vicki Marty for this article which inspired the series.

[2]Morgan, David (1996). Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman. Yale University Press. p. 62.

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