Dali’s ‘Christ [?] Of St. John Of The Cross’
“It will serve as a constant reminder to all who see it,” said one critic, “that there is no hope for the future of the world except through the labour and sacrifice of those in whom the spirit of Christ is active.” This remark, made in the Scottish Art Review, is typical of the attention Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross has received since it was painted in 1951. Life and Work, a Church of Scotland magazine, called it “a new and striking, a simple yet profound symbol which may be of service to the whole Christian Church.” Thousands of copies are sent from Glasgow (the painting is in the Glasgow Art Gallery) to all parts of the world every year, and it has been reproduced in church magazines, hung in offices and homes, and set up as background for talks on religion. Some evangelicals have hailed it as a Christian work of art.
But is it Christian? It is easy, I think, to cloak an artist with our own beliefs and feelings, finding in his work what it does not in fact express. Dali’s continuing protest against abstract art is precisely that it depends too much on the inner experiences of the spectator. “The thing that is really important,” he says, “is that the painter impose his vision on the others, that his idea is expressed completely and depends only on him” (“Interview: Dali at Port Lligat,” Arts Magazine, Feb., 1963, p. 68). Christ of St. John of the Cross must be studied for what it is, and not as a reminder of something else. That Christ is portrayed here does not automatically warrant the label “Christian”; it does not mean the picture speaks the truth.
The painting immediately draws the viewer’s attention to the bowed head of Christ. The cross occupies approximately the upper three-fifths of the painting, and the head of Christ is in the center of this space. The body, hanging dizzily in a plane parallel to the earth below, pulls away from the cross, as if it might fall. Although a heavy blackness surrounds the figure, the body itself and the upper part of the cross are bathed in semi-light, like that of a setting or rising sun.
The space below is a fisherman’s world. There is a lake surrounded by hills, two boats, and three men. The whole scene is placid, almost spellbound; there is barely a ripple on the water, and little movement is suggested in the bodies of the fishermen.
If we focus on the cross alone, we find ourselves looking down on the head of Christ; his face is hidden. If we look at the bottom of the picture, we seem to join the fishermen, for though we view them from above as well, the angle is much less sharp. It is as though we, as observers, were in a supra-spatial position, viewing two worlds, separate, yet juxtaposed.
According to Dali, the painting was inspired by a small drawing from the hand of the Carmelite Juan de Yepes, later known as St. John of the Cross. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic had a vision of Christ and afterwards sketched what he saw: Christ seen from above, although in profile, with the body disjointed, foreshortened, and pulling away from the cross, the head fallen forward on the breast and the face invisible—as Father Bruno de Jésus-Marie says, “like a crucifix placed on the lips of a dying man.” But even though Dali, when only a beginning surrealist, was, he says, very impressed by the poems of St. John of the Cross, there is no indication that he was concerned in this painting with this mystic’s understanding of God. Rather, the impact here and what is said, expressed so well through technique and color, is thoroughly “Dalinian.”
The suspended Christ here is beautiful. There is no blood, no sign whatsoever that the body has been beaten, nailed, pierced, or abused in any other way. In fact there is no physical defect at all: the form is perfect; the muscles are strong; the Christ is super-human. Dali himself writes:
My aesthetic ambition, in this picture, was completely the opposite of all the Christs painted by most of the modern painters, who have all interpreted Him in the expressionistic and contortionistic sense, thus obtaining emotion through ugliness. My principal preoccupation was that my Christ would be beautiful as the God that He is. In artistic texture and technique, I painted the Christ of St. John of the Cross in the manner in which I had already painted my Basket of Bread, which, even then, more or less unconsciously, represented the Eucharist for me [“Nuclear Mysticism,” Scottish Art Review, IV (No. 2, 1952), 26].
Concern for a beautiful God has excluded for the artist the possibility of a suffering Christ. Even nails and thorns are absent, the cross is polished, and the notice above Christ’s head stands blank. Emotion (evoked in the observer), and not truth, is the goal here.
In his more typically surrealistic works, Dali used a superb precision of technique—what he called “handmade photography”—to make the images or combination of images suggested by dreams (or the subconscious) so real that their validity and truth could not be questioned. “My whole ambition in the pictorial domain,” he wrote in Conquestof the Irrational, “is to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision.” And this is what he does here. The crucifix is painted with the same scientific detail and accuracy as the world it overhangs, a world that makes good sense (it’s Port Lligat, Dali’s home).
But the suspended body does not make sense. Why does it look so good? Why doesn’t it fall? Why it is up there at all? Superimposed upon the world below, the cross renders the whole picture irrational. Were we to join the fishermen, we should expect to look up and with our natural eyes behold an unnatural Christ falling toward us. Even the light, which seems to be of one quality, illuminating both the sky and the body of Christ above it, originates from different sources and does not draw the worlds together. There is not even a shadow cast by the cross. The Christ is an abstraction, but as surrealist André Breton might have described it, “an abstraction masquerading as concrete.”
What is Dali saying? Is Christ really there, if he could in some way be perceived? If so, how is he related to the natural world? What kind of Christ is he? And are the fishermen in any way affected?
Of crucial importance to the meaning of the painting is the use of lines and circles in its composition. Let’s look at two diagrams, reproduced below, that Dali sketched before painting his picture. The first looks like a column of smoke exploding exactly in the center. Dali comments:
In 1950 I had a “cosmic dream” in which I saw in colour the above picture. In my dream it represents the nucleus of the atom. This nucleus has for me a metaphysical meaning. I think of it as the very unity of the universe—the Christ [“Nuclear Mysticism,” Scottish Art Review, IV (No. 2, 1952), 26].
The second, sketched a year later, seems to be based on the first. Dali says again:
When, thanks to Father Bruno (Carmelite), I was shown the Christ drawn by St. John of the Cross I made a geometric drawing of a triangle and a circle, which aesthetically summarized all my previous experiments, and I formed my Christ in this triangle [ibid.].
Comparing the painting with this second diagram, we can see that Christ’s head was indeed formed within the circle, and his feet mark the point of the triangle. Accordingly, if we trace a straight line from each of the farthest corners of the cross-beam to the feet and extend it to intersect the edge of the picture, a straight line joining the two points at the edges divides the picture just above the mysterious, dim beam of light that seems to fall from the cross. The space below is separate.
There is another pattern, too. If we draw a line along the base of the cross, dividing the picture in two, the diagonals extending from the top corners of the picture along the outstretched arms of Christ intersect at his head exactly in the center of the upper space. Dali’s “cosmic dream” seems well portrayed; Christ is centered like the exploding nucleus in the diagram because he is the “unity of the universe.” And yet, as in the first pattern, the lower space with the fishermen and boats is separate, as though it were a completely different picture.
At the time of this painting Dali had long rejected surrealism in the traditional sense and, influenced by his study of nuclear physics, was experimenting with what he calls “nuclear mysticism.” According to this school (invented by him, apparently), the nucleus of the atom gives solidity to the universe and holds it together, and as such is intermediary between matter and spirit. If the atom is exploded, matter disintegrates—“dematerializes,” as Dali puts it—and transforms itself into energy or “spirit.” The nucleus bursts apart, but at the same time it is the stable or unifying point—the fulcrum, as it were—of transformation. Thus of his Basket of Bread, painted in 1945, Dali says, “The mystical substance by its high density and immobility reaches an objective, ‘pre-explosive’ state in a paroxysm. And matter becomes energy through dematerialization, or spiritualization” (Dali, Dali, ed. Max Gérard, Abrams, 1968). It is in this sense, I think, that Dali compares his Basket of Bread with the Eucharist or body of Christ, and hence with Christ of St. John of the Cross. The physical communion bread (depicted with great detail and precision in Dali’s painting, as though photographed) is immobile and stable, while actually taking place within it is a change from the material to the spiritual: an inverted transubstantiation.
The nucleus, then, is the substance and shape of things, and as such becomes identified in Dali’s thought with God:
But where is substance?… In all this treacherous universe the only material reality, the only compact, unanalyzable substance must be God.… I must at all costs touch God.… It is the mystical vision of all times.… In his ecstasies the mystic approaches consubstantially to that-which-alone-is, to the unique material that really exists.
God is dense, squat, compact, formed of a condensed material, of a real material matter. God is a nucleus of magisterial density, unimaginable … the totality of universal energy.… God is one, and at the same time infinitely dispersed throughout creation in billions upon billions of little pieces. He is immobile within himself and present everywhere at every instant, infinite division and infinite unity [Dali and Paul Pauwels, Les passions selon Dali, Paris: Denoël, 1968, pp. 195, 201, 202].
And it is this view of God and of the splitting atom that is symbolized in Dali’s works by the “rhinoceros horn.” Dali comments:
In my painting there are symptoms of rhinoceros horns that stand out and allude to the constant dematerialization of that element which in me transforms itself more and more into a decidedly mystical element [Dali, Diary of a Genius, Doubleday, 1965, p. 132].
And again of his Basket of Bread he declares, “The basket has become a crown and the bread has achieved the unity of the elbow or of the rhinoceros horn” (Robert Descharnes, The World of Salvador Dali, Viking, 1972, p. 121). The rhinoceros horn is, or represents, the condensation, the materialization of all “primordial energies” of nature and in this sense is “Neoplatonic,” the source of emanation (materialization) and agent of return to the One, or spirit. The horn, therefore, is also a “cosmic sex,” since for Dali “eroticism is the supreme monarchal principle, which cybernetically ‘flows’ through the molecular structures of deoxyribonucleic acid” (ibid.). (Dali’s continuing fascination with nuclear physics eventually led him to focus his mysticism on the structure of DNA, in his words, “the double spiral of Crick and Watson, Jacob’s Ladder of genetic angels, the only structure linking man to God”). The nuclear structure of matter, then, symbolized by the rhinoceros horn, is both God (who is material) and agent of transformation or return from matter to spirit.
All this Dali attempts to summarize, I think, in a work painted just a year after Christ of St. John of the Cross, entitled Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina. Dali pictures Gala (his wife) as a giant Virgin rising from a sphere structured like the atom, propelled by the upward, whirling motion of hornshaped particles composing her ethereal body. In the middle of her body, as a kind of nucleus, is the same Christ as that of Christ of St. John of the Cross. Hanging above an altar or communion table, he is portrayed at once as the bursting source of the particles flowing toward heaven and also as their unifying still point. Clearly he is the intermediary here between earth—or the material world—and heaven.
But what kind of intermediary is he? In Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, Christ (God in material form?) is the way of escape through the cupola, the means of breaking with the earth—or with matter—below; he is not God coming to man. And the same is true in Christ of St. John of the Cross. Christ is supposedly the unity of the universe; immobile and heavy, he hangs with head centered as though it should be the crown of the “monarchal principle” linking man to God. But as we have seen, the head is the center only of the above realm, which only borders the one below and has nothing to do with the creatures who feed upon the earth to draw their life. Although in this painting the sensual world is not pure matter (chaos), it is not the cosmic Christ portrayed here who integrates it and gives it form. The Christ seems, rather, to represent a Neoplatonic Nous (mind) and World Soul combined—the Nous as timeless unity of Ideas and the Soul as connecting link between Nous and the sensual world—and not the creative Logos by whom all things here on earth hang together.
Dali, then, has not succeeded in portraying Christ as “unity of the universe” as he set out to do in his diagrams. Nor is his Christ in any other sense a bridge between God and man. The cross can be envisioned only perhaps by an accomplished mystic who transcends this world, for it will never reach down and touch the earth.
If on the one hand Christ is dead or dying, it is not because he is Jesus of Nazareth, tortured Roman-style two thousand years ago. The crucifixion is a charade; Christ is not a human who submits to human suffering and death.
If on the other hand Dali’s Christ is triumphant, then his triumph is a sham. The body, beautiful as if more than fully restored to health, remains upon a cross with head bowed in death as though the resurrection had been only a partial success—an abortion. The Christ is lifeless, certainly not the “living bread” coming to give and actually share his life with the world. His body in no way recalls the “staff of life” broken to nourish man every day in all that he does and knit him together with his fellow man in dependence upon God; it is not the Eucharist.
Christ of St. John of the Cross, then, must be carefully labeled, and Christians should not be fooled into pouring their own content into a mere appearance of Christ. The grace and truth of God is denied here; the Christ is one who either did not really come and suffer and die or whom death overcame in the end. In identifying him with the nucleus of the atom Dali does not show us a universe held together by God and brought close to him; he merely manipulates a familiar symbol to portray his own brand of pantheism. The lifeless, faceless, cosmic Christ is totally impersonal and as such becomes an omen of doom rather than an image of hope—a crucifix, fit only to be placed upon the face of a dying world.
Janet Johnson is editorial assistant, Evangelical and Ministers Book Clubs, Washington, D.C.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more