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Dec 9, 2002

The House of God
Head of Christ

Copyright Warner Press, Inc., Anderson, IN. Used by permission

Painter Warner Sallman's name is little-known. But his work is universal. His most famous piece is the 1940 painting "Head of Christ." It's an oil-on-canvas work that depicts Christ in profile. In it Jesus gazes into the distance, his blue eyes cast slightly upward and his lips pursed. He has long, sandy hair which flows down his neck and shoulders.

It's an image that came to represent Jesus for many in the 1940s and beyond. Estimates are the painting has been reproduced anywhere from 500 million to 1 billion times in the last 60 years on everything from clocks to calendars to cards (during World War II it was distributed in wallet size by the Salvation Army and YMCA to millions of U.S. military men and women).

For Calvin art professor Henry Luttikhuizen and Calvin history professor Peggy Bendroth such visual depictions of religion are fascinating.

They're especially interested in how people of Protestant belief often used religious images in their homes, despite the absence of such images in their churches.

And so in January 2003 they will co-curate a show at the Center Art Gallery at Calvin that will feature 19th- and 20th-century popular religious images. The exhibition, to be called "The House of God: Religious Observation within American Protestant Homes," is made possible by a Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship grant. It will open January 7 and conclude February 13, 2003.

One of the pieces, among the 35-45 slated for the show, will be the original oil-on-canvas "Head of Christ" by Sallman (on loan from Anderson University).

"I think," says Luttikhuizen, "that it will be very interesting for people to see the painting that for so many came to be Christ. It was never intended by Sallman to be fine art. His intent was actually to use his art as an evangelism tool. He was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and he very much saw himself as a evangelist."

Luttikhuizen says the upcoming show will allow people to see a variety of images that Protestants and evangelicals displayed in great numbers in the early decades of the 20th century, despite the visual austerity of their churches.

"As a result of the Reformation," says Luttikhuizen, "many Protestants, and certainly most Reformed faiths, had sanctuaries devoid of images. But their homes are filled with them. It's a very interesting contrast."

In addition to several pieces by Sallman there will be many works by Currier and Ives, commercial artists who did poster-type pieces often depicting such religious habits as family devotions and pre-meal prayers. Those are on loan from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton. It also will include two original examples of African American depictions of Christ (both on loan from Urban Ministries in Chicago): "Christ on the Cross" and "Jesus Praying in the Garden," both done by Fred Carter in the 1970s and 1980s.

There also will be several mottoes, words used as visual images. These, says Luttikhuizen, often were displayed by faiths that were uncomfortable with specific images, say depictions of Christ, but still wanted visual reminders of the faith on display for themselves and others.

Luttikhuizen hopes to dress the gallery like a home, complete with wallpaper on the walls and furniture on the floors to put the pieces in their "natural setting."

The exhibition catalog will include essays by Luttikhuizen (an expert on devotional art), Calvin provost Joel Carpenter (an expert on the history of fundamentalism), Calvin history professor Peggy Bendroth (an expert on fundamentalism and gender) and Valparaiso professor David Morgan, author of "Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images" and also editor of "Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman."

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)