A Christ I Can Be Excited About!

A Christ I Can Be Excited About!

No doubt many of you are familiar with the famous painting, the Head of Christ by Warner Sallman. We, informally, call it the “Legionary Christ.” The Legionaries adopted this painting as our official image of Christ early in our history and Christ is honored in many of our houses, seminaries, retreat centers and schools using this painting. For years it has also been widely used by the Salvation Army, USO and YMCA. In 1994, with more than 500 million copies sold, The New York Times declared that Sallman would likely be voted the “best known artist of the century.”

The version we have come to know was painted in 1940, a year before the founding of the Legionaries of Christ. Interestingly, it was a seminary – North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago – that commissioned Salman to paint this updated version of a similar painting he had done in 1935.

Even though this is our official “Legionary Christ” image – and I have seen this painting daily since I joined the Legionaries of Christ in 1993 – I could never quite connect with the Jesus in Sallman’s painting. He is looking up, not at me, and there is little context as to where he is. While he represents an ideal of strength, focus, self-possession and distinction that I admire – frozen in a moment in which he is encountering the Father – it wasn’t an image of Christ that I would call “friend.” I couldn’t really pray to him – at least not in this painting. Indeed, I felt kind of guilty that the “official” image of the Legionaries that graced our homes and ordination cards, didn’t really speak to me.

But in a providential encounter with Fr. Louis de Vaugelas, LC, all that changed.

During a quick conversation in the hallway, Fr. Louis told me that the “Legionary Christ” was actually a detail of an earlier and now less famous painting, Friend of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus) by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, that hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was painted by Augustin in 1892 – the same year Sallman was born. That was also the same year it came into the MFA collection in Boston.


If one looks at the head of Christ in this Augustin’s painting, there is a striking resemblance to Sallman’s Head of Christ, it would be hard to argue one did not inspire the other.

Augustin’s painting shows the closing scene of the famed passage of Christ on the road to Emmaus. Jesus is seated around the kitchen table at the very moment he breaks the bread and repeats the gesture of the Last Supper. His stunned disciples sit across the table while a woman and young boy serve in the background, oblivious to the miraculous event unfolding before them.

What I love about this painting is that it gives a context to our “Legionary Christ” that I can relate to. Sallman’s version no doubt represents a noble and beautiful ideal. But seeing the Head of Christ in this scene from the life of Christ in Augustin’s painting, and at the very beginning of the life of the Church, has made all the difference for me.

Jesus ministering around a dining room table, meeting people where they are at, having just spent hours explaining the scriptures to his discouraged disciples, trying to “bring them back.” And being confronted with men and women who don’t quite understand but are hungry to hear more.

Now this “day in the life” of the resurrected Jesus is something that really “speaks” to me.

Accompanying discouraged Catholics, some struggling in their faith, meeting them one on one – where they are at – or in small groups around a meal is something I do often.

Jesus is breaking the bread of the Eucharist! I do that every day!

So, I have a newfound attraction to Sallman’s Christ, especially when meditating on Christ the resurrected apostle, revealing himself, accompanying other apostles, and reaching out to those on the spiritual peripheries.

That is something I can truly relate to!


Fr Mark Haydu Legionaries of ChristFr. Mark Haydu, LC, was ordained to the priesthood in 2007 and has earned two licentiate degrees (STL) in political moral philosophy and Christian moral theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, in Rome.

Fr. Mark Haydu, LC, is the Chief Development Officer for he Legionaries of Christ. Fr. Mark worked in the Vatican Museums for 9 years as Director of the Patrons of the Arts. He authored Meditations on Vatican Art and Meditations on Vatican Art: Angels. He currently offers Friday Meditations, reaching over 1,200 community members monthly, which can be found on the Legionaries of Christ Podcast.

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