Christ in Gethsemane

gardensmallEditor’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.

Most of Warner Sallman’s well-known pictures suggest debts to the work of other religious artists. Sallman found ample material to work from in devotional magazines, illustrations in popular Bible literature, and a host of books on Christian art and the life of Christ illustrated by the work of artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. He is said to have been an avid collector of such images and to have gathered them in his studio (conversation of the author with Charles Bates, July 19, 1991). Some viewers may accuse him of plagiarism. But artists of all time have borrowed from their predecessors, and Sallman never simply reproduced the work of another. What matters in this study concerning the changes Sallman made are the consequences they may have had for reception of his images.

Christ in Gethsemane derives from the work of another religious painter, in this case, the painting of Christ at prayer by Heinrich Hofmann. Hofmann’sJesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, painted in 1890, was widely reproduced in devotional magazines and was often compared with Sallman’s art. Hofmann’s image was frequently the subject of stained-glass windows and of murals painted in church sanctuaries throughout the Midwest during the 1930s, including one by Sallman himself in a church on the south side of Chicago.

Sallman modified the German picture in obvious and subtle ways. Both artists constructed their pictures on the basis of a diagonal. Hofmann aligned a ray of heavenly light falling from the upper left with the angle of Christ’s back. In the center of the picture the halo shines about Christ’s head. Sallman reversed Hofmann’s composition and substituted a dark diagonal of rock that parallels the kneeling Christ and silhouettes his glowing tunic, providing part of what a sales catalog described as “a quiet and natural background.” Christ’s face, lifted carefully from the Head of Christ, bisects the stone slope at a right angle, serving to arrest the viewer’s eye once again at the center of the picture. Sallman exchanged Hofmann’s Italianate chiaroscuro for bright and broadly brushed colors. Christ is not placed in the middle distance, but pulled closer to the picture plane and situated in something of an alcove, a partial enclosure that reinforces both his isolation from the sleeping disciples in the distance and his intimate proximity to the viewer. The alcove, a garden-like feature accompanying the altar slab of stone on which Jesus prays, connotes the picturesque silence of the “Garden of Gethsemane,” that oriental place in which the prayer occurs in a final moment of privacy before public humiliation and execution.

Both artists conveyed the nature of Christ’s suffering with the thorn bush, but Sallman supplemented the legibility of this suggestion by linking the thorny growth to a shadowy cruciform that is scantily concealed in the rock backdrop in the upper right. Sallman also heightened the emotional state of Jesus by clasping the hands in prayer and furrowing the brow. While Hofmann’s Christ appears to have resigned himself to his fate, Sallman’s remains in a state of beseeching God.

This latter difference, in addition to the bright colors and the isolation of Christ in the foreground, may help account for the great popularity of Sallman’s image. It has served many as a devotional aid in prayer. One writer recalled receiving “inspiration” whenever she looked upon her picture as a teenager and prayed. An Iowa woman wrote that the large stained-glass version of the image in her church helped “to comfort me and preserve my inner peace.” Sallman’s picture is often cited by letter writers as hanging in the bedroom where it inspires pathos and prayer. One woman recalled the effect of the image during her college years:

“Whenever I felt lonely or afraid or overwhelmed by the chaos of a twisted world, I would look up at that picture and be overcome by a deep sense of peace and comfort.” (Sallman Archives, Anderson University)

Another woman, widowed after 45 years of marriage, wrote that the “sight of the Lonely Savior, pouring out his heart in prayer to His Father, has inspired me through many hard and lonely problems. My pain and sorrow could never compare with the extreme suffering He endured for our sake …” (Sallman Archives, Anderson University)