Created In Our Image: The Making of an American Idol

Several times a week on my walk home, I pass by That’s Atomic, a tiny antique store on Olive Way that greets visitors to my neighborhood with a constantly shifting window display of weird and wonderful trinkets.  If I have time, I usually stop in and check out the new inventory and chat up Bill and Pam, the proprietors.  The other day I found myself walking home with a pair of velvet Jesus paintings.

After Warner Sallman. Velvet Jesus paintings, c. 1970s.

After Warner Sallman. Velvet Jesus paintings, c. 1970s.

Now, it’s not like I needed any more velvet Jesuses in my life—as visitors to my apartment will attest, “Peyote Jesus,” longtime denizen of my bathroom is, like, already the most badass velvet Jesus in the history of ever.  I’ve been accumulating religious kitsch objects since I was old enough to shop, and my hobby has actually been slowing down in recent years.  (I found the pursuit of odd religious items ever so much more rewarding when I lived in Texas, where most of those around me were apparently oblivious to the irony inherent in such discarded artifacts.)

Anyway, the reason I was unable to resist this particular pair of velvet Jesuses is because they so elegantly encapsulate the charm of mid-century popular representations of Christ.  Both paintings are awkward 1970s adaptations of portraits created by Chicago-based illustrator Warner Sallman in the 1940s: Head of Christ and Christ in Gethsemane.  Warner Sallman is not a household name, but his paintings are, in the words of a 1994 New York Times profile on the artist, so ubiquitous as make “Warhol’s soup cans seem positively obscure.”  A 2007 Newsweek article states that Head of Christ has been reproduced over a billion times, “if you include lamps, clocks and calendars.”  (Indeed, when I was growing up Lutheran in rural Iowa, it seemed Sallman’s pictures were everywhere.)

Warner Sallman. The Head of Christ, 1941.

Warner Sallman. The Head of Christ, 1941.

When I was in grad school, making art that directly referenced the history of Christian iconography, I began to make a practice of learning all I could about the idiosyncratic visual culture of American Christianity.  In contrast to the rich visual culture imposed by, say, the Catholic Church on Latin America, the majority of the European settlers and immigrants to the United States through the nineteenth century were, visually speaking, more-or-less iconoclasts: Puritans and Protestants whose spiritual practice emphasized the written Word of God over the power of images and whose preferred religious architecture consisted of austere, rectangular meetinghouses where fellowship took precedence over ritual.  While Judeo-Christian religious themes certainly permeated the arts—think of the allegories of America as the Promised Land in nineteenth century landscape painting, for instance—actual visual representations of Christ were few and far between in the early days of the American empire.

With the advent of commercial printing in the late nineteenth century, images of Christ—usually sentimental Victorian portraits derived from familiar Catholic iconography—began to trickle into the Protestant households of middle America.  But Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ marks a bold transition toward the development of a distinctly American Jesus.  This is no Old World icon: with his soft, backlit hair, Sallman’s lily-white Jesus has the alert, pragmatic features of a Midwestern farm boy combined with all the romantic beauty of a celluloid heartthrob.

The Hollywood myth factory, in fact, has played no small role in twentieth-century America’s imagining of Jesus.  Earlier this year, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City mounted an exhibition titled Reel Religion, chronicling the brief but dramatic history of the influence of the Bible on film.  Indeed, the proliferation of macho blockbuster Biblical epics like The Robe and Ben-Hur in the 1950s fostered a growing demand for a Savior onto whom Americans could project our action-hero aspirations.  Also influential has been the mythic vocabulary of comic books, whose tidy struggles of good versus evil all too often follow an unfortunate cultural tendency to vanquish nuance with simplicity.

Jesus Armwrestles Satan. Via user "robotsluvme"

Jesus Arm Wrestles Satan. Via user “robotsluvme”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has also been a notable producer of distinctly American representations of Jesus.  The episode God’s Close Up from the first season of the TV version of This American Life profiles a Mormon artist who stages elaborate Biblical tableaux and photographs them as references for his devotional paintings.  The show’s producers do an elegant job of navigating many of the complex factors inherent in such an undertaking.

A campy cover illustration from a mid-century Seventh-Day Adventist book in my collection emphasizes one issue that consistently pops up in American representations of Jesus:  the convention of portraying Christ as a white man. A close examination of the front and back covers of the open book reveals a sinister, not-so-subtly racist subtext to Christ-in-our-image, American style.

Russ Harlan. Cover illustration for The Desire of Ages, published by Pacific Press, 1964.

Russ Harlan. Cover art for The Desire of Ages by Ellen White. Pacific Press, 1964.

Attention, people of many lands:  Behold the white man’s flaxen-haired Jesus,  Son of Manifest Destiny!  Take comfort in this handsome, gentle figurehead of colonialism and compulsory conversion!

Here’s an even creepier version, involving children:

Artist unknown. Cover illustration for The Bible Story, Vol. 10. Pacific Press, 1957.

Artist unknown. Cover art for The Bible Story, Vol. 10. Pacific Press, 1957.

What masquerades as inclusiveness in these images cannot sanitize their stench of colonialism, and brings to mind the audacious tenacity with which Christian missionaries still routinely campaign against the diversity of human religious expression around the world in the name of Jesus.  Monotheism, it is often argued, lends itself to colonialism and dominionism precisely because it wields a one-size-fits-all deity who may be adapted to fit an infinite array of cultural constraints.

But Jesus is no amorphous universality.  If he is to be represented, he must be endowed with human features, and thus the decision to depict him will always raise issues as to what attributes are included.  Not surprisingly, the forces that shape these decisions are often the same ones we use to form our own collective identity.  Analogous developments in American religious architecture (specifically the sports-arena-inspired architecture of megachurches) emphasize the role of secular factors—particularly economic ones—in determining contemporary religious tastes.

Jesus as the Starbucks logo. Via

Jesus as the Starbucks logo. Via

At the end of the day Jesus is, of course, a mirror that perfectly reflects the best and worst in all who take it upon themselves to re-invent him in their image. Every few years, this mirror glimpses a novel contour, sparking a new controversy over how God’s favorite son may or may not be portrayed.  From Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ to the gratuitous anti-semitism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it seems artists and iconoclasts will always quibble over the addition of some new brushstroke to our ever-evolving composite portrait of American Jesus.

David Horsey, 2004. Via

David Horsey. American Jesus, 2004. Via

~ by emilypothast on August 20, 2009.

3 Responses to “Created In Our Image: The Making of an American Idol”

  1. Interesting bit about trickling in of iconography.
    Please enjoy my gallery of disturbing Jesus art:

    I’ll have to check that antique shop out, I’m in Seattle as well.

  2. […] …wasn’t a natural blonde. […]

  3. Are you aware that Sallman plagiarized The Head of Christ from a 1892 painting by Leon Lhermitte titled ‘Friend of the Humble’?

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