Thanks to Salvador Dalí

Until recently, all I knew about Salvador Dalí was that he created this painting. I have seen it—smaller than I expected—many times at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I hadn’t realized that Dali, known for weird surrealist paintings such has this one, had reverted to Catholicism in midlife. Born on this day in Catalonia, Spain, he had been raised Catholic but had turned to atheism as a young adult. He painted this picture, The Persistence of Memory, when he was 27 and in the full embrace of atheism. Even then, however, he was contemplating how time is a fluid concept, something anyone who believes that God exists beyond space and time has mulled.

Dali died in 1989. I am heartened to know that he died in full Communion with the Church. To celebrate his birthday, I wanted to share some of his religious artwork. I never studied art history, and so I was delighted to discover these works in my journeys through cyberspace.

The Church has a tradition of  cherishing artists. Pope John Paul II said: “Beauty is the vocation bestowed on the artist by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation as poet, writer, sculptor, musician, and actor feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it to service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.”  To be sure,  Dalí was an oddball.  This formidable 20th-century artist didn’t have a conventional childhood. He was born nine months after his older brother, also named Salvador, died. When he was five his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told he was the reincarnation of his brother. Imagine how difficult it would be to grow up with that misperception.

What a blessing that our Church and our God has room for everyone. We are all misfits in our own way, aren’t we? As Flannery O’Connor wrote: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”  I pray that Salvador Dalí, who gave the world the gifts of his artistic talent, found comfort and solace in the Church. Here are some samples of paintings that reflect his faith.

This 1946 painting is called “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” It is in the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium. Here Dali depicts the supernatural temptations of Desert Father Saint Anthony the Great as he sojourned through Egypt.

This painting from 1951 is “Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” It is based on a design by the 16th-century Doctor of the Church. It is in Glasgow’s St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.

In 1954,  Dalí painted “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus).” It  is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Finally, given that we will celebrate the Feast of Ascension on Thursday, I thought I would finish this art tour with Dalí’s painting, “The Ascension of Christ.” It is in a private collection.

  • Mocha

    Allison: This is one of your best posts yet. It combines art, Church history and the life of a famous artist. I had the pleasure of meetig Salvador Dali with my dad many years ago while in a restaurant in NYC. He was a very humble older gentleman who, though seated with friends, took a moment to say hello to an awkeard teenage girl. I had studied his work in high school and college — funnily enough, no professor ever revealed his Catholic works or story of reversion. Hmmm…

  • Webster Bull

    I agree with Mocha: a really fine post, and a revelation to me. Though I was familiar with Dali's Last Supper, I somehow always had him pegged as a surrealist and, therefore somehow an atheist-modernist (which shows how little I know about art history or modernism or anything else much). Anyway, the post–together with Mocha's lovely story about the "humble older gentleman"–has opened my eyes. Which is what good art should do, right?

  • EPG

    When I was in high school, we had a field trip to New York that included a trip to the Metropolitan Museum. One of our assignments arising out of the trip was to write an essay about a work of art we saw there. The Dali Crucifixion above was the one I chose.

  • Allison

    @EPG: Wow. This is making me want to return to the Met which I have not visited in years. Do you remember how large the piece is? Again, I was so surprised at how small The Persistence of Memory is.

  • Anonymous great Catholic indeed! Look up "communion", Easter, etc.

  • Allison

    As I wrote, he was an oddball. I find great reassurance to know that as he aged, he embraced his faith. God is more merciful than any of us can be – or even imagine being.

  • Esther G.

    Good post on Dali. He was commissioned by the Blue Army (World Apostolate of Fatima) to paint a picture of Vision of Hell. I posted on this a while back: You can see a picture of the painting there.

  • Allison

    Esther G: Absolutely fascinating. I live not too far from that shrine and now feel motivated to visit.

  • Magister Christianus

    We were in Florence about twelve years ago and happened upon a Dali exhibit. My wife purchased for me a print of Corpus Hypercubus, which I had long wanted. It hangs in living room now. I find that piece says so much about the true extent of our Lord's dominion. He is truly Lord over all dimensions of space and time, Lord of quarks and Lord of quasars, Lord of the Australian outback and the Crab Nebula. That painting is truly a painting of faith.

  • Esther G.

    Allison, sadly, I believe the painting had to be sold. But please visit the shrine. It is one of the most beautiful shrines in the US. I visit there once a year when I visit my family.

  • Allison

    @Esther G. That is too bad but the shrine sounds lovely nonetheless. Thank you.

  • EPG

    @ Allison — if I recall correctly, the original is actually a fairly good size. Also, for any of you who come to Florida for vacation, we have the Dali Museum right here in St. Petersburg, which is in the process of trying to build a new home.

  • Anonymous

    I've never liked Dali, whose art I've always considered to be highly sexualized and an attempt to depict the philosophy of Freud. I hope indeed he returned to his Mother in the end.One observation: why did Dali not depict Christ's wounds in his Ascension?

  • Allison

    @Anonymous: Very good observation about the painting. As I mentioned, I never studied art history. You will note none of his paintings of Christ depicts wounds or blood. I found this explanation as to why the Christ in Dali's Christ of Saint John of the Cross – the chronologically first painting I showed – also has no wounds or blood. "Christ of Saint John of the Cross" depicts Jesus Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. Although it is a depiction of the crucifixion, it is devoid of nails, blood, and a crown of thorns, because, according to Dalí, he was convinced by a dream that these features would mar his depiction of ChristAlso in a dream, the importance of depicting Christ in the extreme angle, evident in the painting, was revealed to him. The painting is known as the "Christ of Saint John of the Cross," because its design is based on a drawing by the 16th century Spanish friar Saint John of the Cross. The composition of Christ is also based on a triangle and circle (the triangle is formed by Christ's arms; the circle is formed by Christ's head). The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity, and the circle may be an allusion to Platonic thought. On the bottom of his studies for the painting, Dalí explained its inspiration: "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!"

  • Arthur Hawthorne

    It seems to me that Salvador Dali, everyone I know or have read or seen paintings of are given these abilities by Jesus Christ and we know it, that is the only reason we are Catholic. I thank you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength Jesus. Articles like this one inspire me and solidify my faith.God bless us all,Arthur

  • Andrea

    Thank you, Mocha, for starting the great comments. Thank you EPG, as we will be vacationing in Florida this August. I will make a visit to the Dali Museum as one of the highlights of our trip.

  • Shannon

    Here's my favorite Dali:'s the Madonna of Port Lligat. I love the transparency of it all.

  • Judy

    I saw the Ascension earlier this year at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris, one of the smaller private galleries. It is an amazing piece of art. Prior to seeing it this past May I did not know it existed. It does indeed belong to a private collection, I believe in Mexico. I was not able to purchase a print (either at the gallery or online) but did purchase a postcard and a bookmark of the painting. If you ever have the chance to see it, don't miss the chance!

  • Allison

    Judy: How wonderful that you had the opportunity to see the painting.