Sight of the Week: May 3-9, 2021 | Archive

Christ of the Ozarks.
Sunset illuminates the largest Jesus statue in the USA.

Christ of the Ozarks

Field review by the editors.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Christ of the Ozarks statue was constructed in 1966, the first attraction built for The Great Passion Play religious theme park. It stands atop Magnetic Mountain, "blessing" Eureka Springs below, a gesture of thanks from Gerald L.K. Smith, a far-right minister (and America First party founder) who had searched the country looking for a town that would allow him to build it. The statue faces west, and sunsets often turn the spread-armed Savior a rosy pink.

Christ of the Ozarks.
Christ of the Ozarks' boxy body.

Christ of the Ozarks -- striking a pose similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil -- is the fourth-biggest Jesus in the world and the largest in the USA. Sixty-seven feet tall, with arms 65 feet wide, he stands at an altitude of 1,500 feet. According to rumor, or legend, the sculpture originally had feet, but they had to be removed to lower the statue to its current height -- otherwise Jesus by law would have had a red warning beacon bolted to his head.

Giant face of Jesus arrives: 1966.
Giant face of Jesus arrives: 1966.

To build a Jesus this big, Smith hired Emmet A. Sullivan, who claimed to have been part of the team that had sculpted Mount Rushmore -- although his precise role was never really explained. Sullivan's biggest previous solo work was the menagerie of prehistoric thunder lizards in Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was an odd choice for a colossal Christ, and his work drew mixed reviews. Smith, eager to attract visitors, proclaimed that the Christ of the Ozarks was more beautiful than Michelangelo's Jesus in the Pieta.

Critics, however, have described the statue as a milk carton with a tennis ball stuck on top, or Willie Nelson in a dress.

We asked some visiting tourists what they thought of Christ of the Ozarks. They told us that his eyes were "dead" and "lacked passion." Vernon Payne, our Great Passion Play guide, admitted, "I don't really like the statue," and said that its features were harsh and hard. "But," he added, "it's a memorial to our Savior, and for that it's fine."

Emmet Sullivan (in hat) supervises construction.
Emmet Sullivan (in hat) supervises construction.

(To be fair to Sullivan, he sculpted Christ of the Ozarks long before America's Christian artists shifted to today's more neighborly Smilin' Jesus.)

What Christ of the Ozarks lacks in warmth, he makes up for in bulk. Sullivan built the statue with more than two million pounds of concrete and steel. The blessed head alone weighs 7.5 tons. According to The Story of the Building of the Great Statue, a booklet available in The Great Passion Play gift shop, each of the statue's wrists can support the weight of three hanging cars without damage. Also, Jesus can "withstand 500-mile-an-hour winds or more."

This Christ was clearly not built to cuddle, but to win an end-of-the-world smackdown with Satan.

Vernon Payne told us that returning visitors are sometimes confused about the statue. They believe that it used to revolve, or that it once had an elevator to the top or a restaurant inside its base (None of these are true). Visitors have also reported that the Messiah's eyes follow them as they move -- but this is explained as a trick of sunlight and shadow, not a miracle.

Back of the Christ of the Ozarks.
Divine hair.

After completing the Christ of the Ozarks, Sullivan went back to sculpting dinosaurs. He built the brontosaurus at Wall Drug in South Dakota, and the big beasts at Dinosaur World in Arkansas. Then he died in 1970.

In 2016 -- the statue's 50th birthday -- Jesus received a $20,000 makeover that restored his original blemish-free appearance.

The Great Passion Play theme park keeps the Christ of the Ozarks open and available 365 days a year, dawn to dusk, as a free attraction. On the way to see him, tourists can visit a slab of the Berlin Wall along the road, and the graves of Smith and his wife, who are buried within the shadow cast by their mega-Messiah.

Also see: The Great Passion Play Theme Park

Christ of the Ozarks

New Holy Land

Address:
935 Passion Play Rd, Eureka Springs, AR
Directions:
A couple of miles east of town. Take US 62 east to Passion Play Rd.
Hours:
Gates open daily dawn-dusk. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
479-253-9200
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Slab of the Berlin WallSlab of the Berlin Wall, Eureka Springs, AR - < 1 mi.
The Great Passion PlayThe Great Passion Play, Eureka Springs, AR - < 1 mi.
Sacred Arts MuseumSacred Arts Museum, Eureka Springs, AR - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Ten-Ton Hog Head, Fayetteville, AR - 34 mi.

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