Christ at Heart’s Door

heartsdoorsmallEditor’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.

Christ at Heart’s Door is the second-most cited image by Sallman among the 473 letters which the research project received from readers of popular religious magazines. It was inspired by a tradition of British and German painting and prints from the 19th century which depict Christ knocking at the door of a home. The most famous of these images are the versions of The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, the first of which Hunt completed in 1853 and which hangs today in Keble College, Oxford. Sallman followed the overt allegorizing evident in European versions of the subject such as Hunt’s. Viewers of Sallman’s picture appreciate the unambiguous legibility of the picture, whose subject is based on Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock …”

The barely concealed heart produced by the luminance of Christ and the frame of the doorway convey Christ’s call to the soul ensnared in thistles of sin and the darkness of ignorance and willfulness. Yet, as promotional literature points out, “all is not hopeless, for there is an opening of grillwork in the door ‘revealing the darkness within,’ so that the individual may see who is at the door, and see that He is good and kind.” For American Protestants whose spirituality is premised on the acceptance of a call and “born again” experience and its subsequent testimonial, this image articulates a central theological principle and has served to commemorate such experiences. For others, the image offers assurance of Christ’s benevolent yet persistent love. Still others interpret the image in terms of the freedom of will.

A Lutheran clergyman admires the painting “because the absence of any outside knob or latch on the door indicates that one must open one’s heart to Christ from within — He will not force His way inside.” In either case, the highly symbolic or allegorical character of the image facilitates the inscription of personal and theological narratives of conservative Protestant piety.