Dali and St. John of the Cross

In honor of Salvador Dali’s birthday today: Christ of St. John of the Cross.

Dali’s painting was inspired by a sketch done by St. John while he was chaplain of the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. One day, while praying in a loft overlooking the sanctuary, he was struck by a vision, and hastily made a sketch in pen. This is what he saw:

It is Christ, weighed down by the sins of the world and his own suffering, as if seen from the perspective of the Father. It’s a unique and powerful perspective.

St. John was suspicious of visions, and didn’t think much of it. The sketch was given to one of his penitents, and passed on to her prioress after her death. It was displayed in a monstrance until 1968, when it was removed to be studied and restored, before being returned to the monastery.

Dali had this to say about his version of the painting:

In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in color and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom’. This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe’, the Christ! In the second place, when thanks to the instructions of Father Bruno, a Carmelite, I saw the Christ drawn by Saint John of the Cross, I worked out geometrically a triangle and a circle, which ‘aesthetically’ summarized all my previous experiments, and I inscribed my Christ in this triangle.

More on St. John.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

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  • julian

    I always feel like a bit of a dilettante for liking Dali. This restores some confidence in my own good taste :)

  • http://www.robinhardy.com robin

    What a powerful painting! I had never seen this one before, and I had a 365-day calendar of Dali paintings! You wonder why critics are so dismissive of it.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Dali was one of the great masters of the 20th century, but his self-promotion and classical skills turned off modern critics who were busy lionizing painters like de Kooning and Pollack out of all proportion to their contributions. In The Painted World, Tom Wolfe does a good job exploring the absurdity of modern art criticism.

  • http://aattaway.com Andrew Attaway

    As Orwell said, Dali was a great artist up to his elbow.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Orwell’s objections to Dali were mostly moral: he thought that Dali had no ideas, and instead used shock and perversity. I understand that kind of response, but I think it misses the psychological complexity in Dali’s work, as well as the fact that it matured over time. Dali’s preoccupations could certainly be perverse, but I don’t think that’s all there was to him.

  • http://www.ecalpemos.org Gordon

    When I go to look at this painting in The Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow (where it hangs) I sometimes ask tourists looking at it if they can spot what is missing from it. So my challenge to you is to spot the obvious thing that you would expect to see in any depictions the crucifixion which is missing from this one. The answer may surprise you, and I think it’s the real power of this painting.

  • Charles Schembri

    I visited Dali’s musem in Tampa Florida, two years ago.

    It is such an amaizing collection of pricless work of art by this great man !

  • DR. Stanley Wesolowsky

    One could almost write a book about this work.
    1) Keeping in mind St. John of the Cross, The mystic of “nothing” and “everything”, and
    so it is understandable that Dali “realizes in his visionary way ” that Christ is the center
    of “everything”, as we are “forced” to look downward toward the “Center” (Dali’s ‘circle’ metaphor),
    toward the “Cross” (Dali’s ‘triangle’ metaphor). In this case, “inspiration” comes from the “top”
    down, the link between the Invisible God and Jesus, not yet – but already, the Christ. Thus, from
    above, God reconciles us “while we were yet sinners”, and from the center, the “son of man”, in
    pryer and adoration asks (“why do you call me good, there is only one that is good, God”) the
    infinite Living God for forgiveness, as the movement down from Jesus toward us in shown in
    the painting. Here we have the Absolute Link between God and Humanity, where the body
    of Jesus, in the painting, already suggests Resurrection and Glorification, again toward us.

  • DR. Stanley Wesolowsky

    Footnote to the above, some great works, on the verbal side: Victor Preller, “Scientia Divina,
    Scientia Dei” the works of Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Urs von Balthasar, give
    methodological tools and vocabulary to better study this masterpiece of Dali.


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