Picturing faith at Eastertime | Greg Asimakoupoulos

Have you noticed? As Holy Week approaches, sacred art is circulating on social media. One particular image that caught my eye was a painting by an artist friend in the Denver area.

Rose Edin, an incredibly gifted watercolor artist in her eighties, was commissioned by her church to paint the crucifixion. When I saw Rose’s latest contribution to the world of religious art, I communicated my appreciation. As a chaplain at a senior adult retirement community, I continue to amazed at the abilities exhibited among an aging population.

But there is another iconic piece of art that is guiding my personal meditation as the Lenten season draws to a close. It is an original chalk drawing by Warner Sallman (based on his 1940 oil painting titled “Head of Christ”) that hangs in the skilled nursing wing of The Shores.

The framed chalk drawing on newsprint sketched by Sallman was created in 1963 before a live Sunday evening audience at the Portage Covenant Church in Portage, Indiana. When the Indiana congregation closed down several years ago, it was given to a friend of mine who works at our denomination’s headquarters in Chicago.

When Rob Hall learned that I had a personal interest in the life of Warner Sallman, and had appreciated his work since I was a small boy, it was gifted to our campus. Since then it has graced our care facility as a year-round reminder of the fact that we are a faith-based community.

One hundred years ago, Warner Sallman, a Chicago illustrator, was hired as the art director for a new monthly periodical called “The Covenant Companion.” A few months later he created a charcoal sketch for the February 1924 cover of the magazine. He titled his cover art “Son of Man.”

In 1940 Sallman used his original concept to create an oil painting which became known as “Sallman’s Head of Christ.” To date that painting has been reproduced over half a billion times and is considered the most reprinted image of all times.

After retiring from his career as an illustrator, Sallman, a member of Edgewater Covenant Church in Chicago, became a popular guest speaker at churches and Bible camps. On such occasions, he would draw a chalk version of his famous painting in an hour before an in-person group.

Last Sunday in our morning worship service at The Shores, we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the framed chalk drawing. For many of our residents who have recently moved to the campus or who have not had opportunity during COVID to frequent the Health Center, it was the first time the original art was seen. I shared the history of Sallman’s various versions of his image of the first century carpenter-apprentice turned rabbi.

As part of my remarks I told the congregation that my daughter and son-in-law (while studying at North Park Seminary in Chicago) lived five houses from the Sallman home where Mr. Sallman painted his famous “Head” in 1940. Several years ago on a trip to visit my kids, the current owner of the Sallman home gave me a tour of the upstairs bedroom where history was made eight decades ago.

As part of my research of Warner Sallman’s life, I discovered something rather curious. Mr. Sallman’s brother-in-law Haddon Sundblom, another Chicago illustrator, became equally as popular as the Head of Christ artist.

It was Sundblom’s image of Santa Claus that he created for Coca-Cola in the 1930s that has largely influenced how the jolly elf is represented to this day. One brother-in-law’s career is defined by his image of Jesus. The other’s is defined by his image of Santa Claus.

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.