Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a 1994 exhibition catalogue by Dr. David Morgan, Department of Art, Valparaiso University. Used with permission. Sallman images copyrighted by Warner Press, Inc. Used with permission.
There are many ways to look at images. We can see them as objects of beauty; as historical artifacts; as mementos; as articles of piety; or as propaganda in the service of an ideology. In one way or another, the images painted by Warner Sallman have been seen in each of these ways. The following comments and images were a part of a two-year research project conducted by a group of scholars seeking to explore the production and reception of Sallman’s art among its primary constituency: Protestant Christians in North America since 1940. The study was motivated by the desire to understand the social history of a set of popular devotional images which have exerted an enormous influence on Christian imagination. Please click on the following links to access selected paintings that are included in the original oil collection at Anderson University (Anderson, Indiana):
In the long wake of the Reformation, it has become conventional for many to claim that Protestantism, particularly its radical and evangelical varieties, is aniconic, that images have played no important role, indeed, have even been explicitly proscribed from worship and devotional life. In fact, however, there is a visual culture to be found in a great many forms of Protestantism, but it is one that varies in important ways from the tradition of “high art.” Over the past several centuries, Protestants in Europe and America have employed inexpensive woodcuts, engravings, etchings, photographs, and offset lithographic images to disseminate confessional views, to teach and admonish, and to celebrate birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, and sacred holidays such as Christmas and Easter. It is this vast body of images, often as ephemeral as a birthday card or Sunday bulletin, that has constituted the visual expression of piety among many Protestants and which is the object of this study.
The mistaken assumption that Protestantism lacks a significant visual practice has caused students of art and religion to overlook opportunities for investigating how religious communities understand themselves, how they convey their self-understandings, and how they practice their devotion in both private and public spheres. Perhaps one of the most iconographically distinctive and certainly the most ubiquitous body of images deployed among a wide range of Protestant communities (and Roman Catholic as well, though on a smaller scale) is the work of Warner Sallman (1892-1968). Sallman produced a number of images which have become virtually archetypal for such groups as Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of God, and the Evangelical Covenant Church, his own church body.
Sallman’s pictures have become iconic for many Protestants inasmuch as they have revealed the devotional ideals cherished by millions of believers since the Second World War. What numerous people report they see when they look at Sallman’s pictures is a compelling visualization of the values which they hold dearest. The imagery acts as a window that looks onto the world as it ought to be. In this manner, Sallman’s pictures serve as icons for American Protestants.