In 1947 the Vatican spoke bluntly to modern artists presuming to handle medieval religious themes. In the encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII warned that “he wanders from the right path … who commands that images of our Divine Redeemer on the Cross be so made that His body does not show the bitter wounds He suffered.”

Doubtless the Roman Catholic concern for the centrality of the sacrifice of Christ has a view to much more than the biblical doctrine of atonement; it has an eye also to the dogma of the mass. But, nonetheless, the encylical places an age of religious revival under aesthetic scrutiny. Such Christian criticism of aesthetics seems especially necessary in the fact of a rising mid-twentieth-century disposition to restore the figure of Jesus to contemporary art forms.

The Enigmatic Dali

At this point the consideration of Salvador Dali, the Spanish painter, and his work, becomes of special interest.

Dali’s painting is as enigmatic as his personality. Steeped in modern surrealism, he sought, like that movement’s originator, Andre Breton, the synthesis of all major problems not in logical processes but in a combination of dream and reality, in a “sort of absolute reality, surrealite.” As a skilled leader, Dali contributed to surrealism his own share of “double talk” picture puzzles, picture images at once symbolic and realistic, pictures speaking to the subconscious rather than to the rational and the moral.

Flight From Surrealism

By 1941 Dali was forsaking surrealism, even repudiating it, in the words of his biography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (Dial Press, 1942), as “an art of revolution.” It was the study of theology that led him to renounce revolution. Along with collective, atheist and neo-pagan utopias (Marx’s Communism and Rosenberg’s Neo-Socialism), he declared revolution to be bankrupt. All of these are destined to be vanquished, he wrote, “by the individualistic reactualization of the Catholic, European, Mediterranean tradition.”

While retaining several pronounced surrealist features, Dali in the next dozen years painted four or five religious themes. In 1954 he completed a crucifixion scene. The following year, Chester Dale, president of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Art, commissioned Dali to paint his most recent and most controversial work, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.”

Debate over the significance of Dali’s work has since spread over two continents. And since March 31 of this year, at least one hundred thousand persons have glimpsed Dali’s provocative canvas (105 by 65 inches) in Washington’s National Gallery. Multitudes have bought souvenir prints of the painting; in six months, information rooms have sold 17,000 color reproductions for framing, 21,000 postcards and 700 color slides. The painting is stirring more interest than almost any other National Gallery exhibition in recent years.

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Yet confusion and division are rife over the “meaning” of Dali’s effort. Some disparage it as scribble and scrabble; others herald it as the triumphant genius of a gifted artist. Even more provocative is the question of its religious significance, and especially in what sense, if any, it is to be regarded as authentic Christian art.

The Renaissance Revolt

Since the Renaissance, modern religious art has loosed itself increasingly from medieval motifs. As a result, even the most sacred biblical themes came to reflect the spirit of a humanistic age. Representations of Jesus were no longer intended to send viewers to their knees, nor in fact did they. If retained at all, the wounds of the Crucified One no longer held redemptive significance; the sacred agony of atonement was gone. In modern religious painting the stigmata all but vanished. The pierced hands and side held only embarrassment for a theology that viewed the ugly suffering of the Cross as superfluous. Observers of the passion, who once prostrated themselves in devotion, now were lost rather in mere grief or pity. Prayer and worship, and any semblance of devotion in view of the shed blood, were gone.

A Model Of Suffering

An instructive article, “Traditional Religion and Modern Art,” by Edgar Wind, professor of art and philosophy at Smith College, significantly notes that modern religious art tends to display Jesus as “a human figure, a humble model of all earthly sufferings.… The devotion which these images arouse is closer to a moral meditation on human cruelty and divine meekness than to participation in a sacrament” (Art News, Vol. 52, No. 3, May, 1953, p. 62).

It is apparent that the medieval and the modern disclose two temperaments: the Roman Catholic pictures let Christ’s deity show through His humanity; the Protestant school exemplified by Rembrandt does not.

After the humanizing of Jesus, a feature of the idealistic and humanistic movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, comes the total repudiation of the Christ, a phenomenon confined as yet to the Soviet sphere. Instead of regarding Jesus merely as a good man who suffered colossal injustice, art takes the form of irreligious invective, and the agony of the Cross is mocked.

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Dali’s “Last Supper”

Dali perfected “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” in Spain in 1954. The mountain-girded bay, remotely suggestive of the Sea of Galilee, is Port Lligat, seen from Dali’s home. Some observers see in the forms of these mountains a relation to Plato’s idea of the heavenly region. The dodecahedron, a segment of which floats in the sky above the communion table, since Pythagoras has symbolized the entire universe. Above this floating structure, two arms, partly real and partly transparent, seem to embrace the whole. They suggest a circle embracing the communing votaries, and perhaps are intended to draw observers to the feast.

Do those arms and the headless body represent the Roman Catholic church? Dali himself may suggest an affirmative reply in his biography: “If I am asked … where the real force of Europe is to be found … in spite of all immediate appearances it resides more than ever in … the open arms of the occident, the arms of St. Peter’s in Rome, the cupola of man, the Vatican” (op. cit., p. 395). Do the arms floating above the universe welcome the seeking pilgrim to enter the Roman Catholic church? Some Roman enthusiasts press this notion. Doubtless the painting is finding its best response among Roman Catholic viewers, although it appeals to persons of all faiths. Dali himself has been said to explain the headless body as a symbol of the Resurrection; yet no confirmation of this can be found in his writings, and why a headless body should symbolize the Resurrection is unclear. Be that as it may, Dali closed his Secret Life with little certainty of having found his quest in Rome: “Heaven is what I have been seeking all along … Where is it to be found?… Neither above nor below … (but) exactly in the center of the bosom of the man who has faith!… I do not yet have faith and I fear I shall die without heaven.”

Historical Or Subjective?

Curator of education at the National Gallery Raymond S. Stites has observed noteworthy peculiarities of Dali’s painting. For example, the heads bent in prayer at the communion table reveal, like the Spanish peasants and artists of today, hair both long and shorn. Moreover, Christ is depicted as beardless, yet with long hair. While there is a Christian tradition in Rome for a beardless Christ, such a representation is considered unusual. The bread used at the table is modern.

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These may be secondary rather than primary features of the debate over Dali’s painting, yet they reflect an underlying question: does the canvas represent the Last Supper as an historical event? Are the figures around the table to be identified with the disciples? What do the headless body, the outstretched arms, represent? What significance has the brilliant coloring? What of the boats? What is the summary message of the painting?

Dali is alleged to have explained his dozen figures around the table by the magical significance of the number twelve. The figures, while perhaps intended to recall the disciples, are not to be individually identified. No rational explanation occurs for the boats, which may have some personal significance for Dali, or be simply surrealist elements intended to jolt conventional modes of thought. The intense color may bear some relation to ecstatic visions alleged in the Middle Ages and in the Counter Reformation.

Stress On Sacrament

Virtually all these questions mirror the tension between realistic content and surrealistic style. The new Dali aimed “to make of surrealism something as solid, complete and classic as the works of museums.” Has he given us here, as Dr. Stites suggests, classical realism of the type done by Spanish painters for four centuries, to be studied in the same manner as the traditional classical works of Poussin, Raphael or da Vinci?

Stites himself urges us to take seriously Dali’s own simple label: The Sacrament of the Last Supper. We see herein not an historical event of 2,000 years ago, no actualizing of Peter and Judas and the other disciples. We have simply a sacramental meal, the Holy Communion, albeit based on the Last Supper as a real event. In view is the eternal significance of the sacrament, more than the historical event itself.

Does the “Sacrament of the Last Supper” take us beyond a group of pious men partaking in a ritual? Does it reach beyond subjective impression to the historical realities at the center of Christian faith? Has the transition really been made from the subconscious and beyond the consciously subjective to the historical and rational, without which the central events and doctrines of the Christian revelation vanish into nebulous subjective mysticism? If the stress of Dali’s brush falls no longer on the irrational elements in the subconscious mind, does it on that account drive us to our knees with a confession that Jesus of Nazareth is Savior and Lord?

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The Dramatic Center

Art in the mood of Dali’s painting lends itself better to the Roman Catholic than to the evangelical spirit. The Roman emphasis on miracle in the present and on the perpetual re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice tends to conceal the dramatic axis of Christian truth as evangelical faith sees it. Evangelicalism rises first out of the crucial redemptive history of the past, and even its most sacred moments of meditation do not shroud that past with traces of a surrealistic technique.

Perhaps one thing is sure about Dali’s canvas. It does not say that the universe is irrational. Whether it says more—whether Dali as an artist has one foot securely in heaven, and whether his painting may be respected as authentic Christian art—is one of the controversies of the day.

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