Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross.

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951
There is another significant  connection between the  icon, the Carmelite tradition and my own faith journey which I have also been musing on (see  HERE  and HERE ).   In my old junior school (St. Cadoc's in Cardiff) there used to be a picture of Christ as you came into the school entrance. *  I loved that picture as a child and I looked at it every time I  came into the school.  It was so very striking and there was no other image of Christ like it.  When I first saw the image of the earth from the moon, I thought of this picture.  And I wonder if  this image 'primed' my mind to be very receptive to Teilhard in my teens: was this childhood image a defining image in my spiritual evolution? I think it was!     I discovered later on that it was painted by Dali in 1951.  I think it may have been my late brother-in-law Manuel, who told me.  Manolo was a Spanish artist  and he knew Dali's work very well.  The fact that it was by Dali took me completely by surprise at the time  because I always supposed it was just a good 'holy picture' of no particular importance.  And I was not much of a Dali fan - unlike Manuel.  I think I must have rather repressed my love of the painting thereafter!

That my reading of our icon could have brought me back to this painting which was so formative in my childhood is remarkably providential - as it was inspired, so I have discovered,  by a drawing by St. John of the Cross himself!  Read more about it HERE.

Dali's drawing based on St. John's drawing (below), 1950

St  John drew the image - below - when he  was chaplain at the Carmelite  monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, (between 1574 and 1577) after he received a vision of Christ.   In the general introduction to the Collected Works of St. John of the Cross - published by ICS press  (See HERE.) it is noted that: 
'The sketch is of Christ crucified, hanging in space, turned toward his people, and seen from a new perspective. The cross is erect. The body, lifeless and contorted, with the head bent over, hangs forward so that the arms are held only by the nails. Christ is seen from above, from the view of the Father. He is more worm than man, weighed down by the sins of human beings, leaning toward the world for which he died. John, who was to write so many cautions against visions and images, later gave the pen sketch to one of his devout penitents at the Incarnation, Ana María de Jesús. She guarded it until the time of her death in 1618, when she gave it to María Pinel who was later to become prioress.
Drawing  by St. John of the Cross that inspired Dali.
In 1641, at the time of Madre María's death, the drawing was placed in a small monstrance, elliptical in shape, where it was conserved until 1968. …. Now restored and provided with a new reliquary, it is once more available for all to see at the Incarnation in Avila. The French Carmelite biographer of St. John of the Cross, Bruno de Jésus-Marie, in 1945 and 1950 discussed the drawing with two renowned Spanish painters of the twentieth century, José María Sert and Salvador Dalí. …Dalí, in turn, was inspired to do a painting from a similar perspective, "The Christ of St. John of the Cross. " In Dalí's painting, in contrast to John's original drawing, the crucified body reminds one more of a Greek god than of the suffering servant. René Huyghe, once Conservator-in-Chief of the paintings in the Museum of the Louvre, wrote concerning the Spanish Carmelite's drawing:

Saint John of the Cross escapes right out of those visual habits by which all artists form a part of their period. He knows nothing of the rules and limitations of contemporary vision; he is not dependent on the manner of seeing current in his century; he is dependent on nothing but the object of his contemplation....The vertical perspective - bold, almost violent, emphasized by light and shade - in which he caught his Christ on the cross cannot be matched in contemporary art; in the context of that art it is hardly imaginable.'

Dali himself said this of the painting.  ".. in 1950, I had a 'cosmic dream' in which I saw this image in colour 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." 

Dali explained in a letter to Scottish Art Review (Vol. IV no. 1,1952):

 "One of the first objections to this painting came from the position of the Christ, that is, the angle of the vision and the tilting forward of the head. This objection from the religious point of view fails from the fact that my picture was inspired by the drawing made of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross himself. In my opinion, it is a drawing made by this saint after an Ecstasy as it is the only drawing ever made by him. …..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.'

The drawing by St. John  is clearly remarkable as René Huyghe (above )points out  and I think Dali's painting is a powerful interpretation of the saint's vision.  

In a  later painting -  The Ascension of Christ painted a few years later in 1958, Dali  reverses the perspective.  In the painting inspired by St. John we see Christ looking down on the world.   In his picture of the Ascension  now see Christ rising up, in full unity with the Father and Holy Spirit.    Christ is shown as holding out his arms as if to embrace all creation.  In the picture of Christ on the Cross Dali uses the geometry of a triangle - representing the Trinity we appear to have - as in Dante - three circles of light which also appear to suggest the Trinity.  (Perhaps we are meant to read the woman at the top of the picture as the Blessed Virgin.   It is actually his wife Gala.) 

Madonna with Mystical Rose, 1963 
Dali's Sacred Heart, 1962
 Dali's  picture of the Sacred Heart painted in 1962, is by comparison rather disappointing - leastways that's what I long thought.   Like Redon's  Sacred Heart we discussed earlier, Christ is not looking at us but appears to be directing our attention to His heart.  This is not a Christ of the universe as in the painting inspired by St. John of the Cross, so much as a Christ of power and energy.  His body is powerful and looks ready for action - as if he is rolling up his shirt to do a job of work with St. Joseph.

  This is the Sacred Heart as the 'zest of the world' as Teilhard described it.  The 'golden glow' that we see in the picture of the Ascension is there, but the heart is not part of the body so much as in a different space or dimension - outside His body.  As in all three images there are no wounds or blood.  No doubt this is in reaction to the rather gruesome images which abound in Spanish Catholicism.  He holds a small cross as if it is a twig which no longer has any power  to inflict death or pain. The cross becomes - I think -  more of a key - to unlock the mystery of God's love. The Sacred Heart looks like a door-way into another dimension and the cross is the key to that doorway.  The heart is an image, an icon, a symbol of Christ as as a kind of radiant energy contained by the heart.  He used this idea ( as I see it) in a later painting - 1963 - Madonna with Mystical Rose.  Here the heart is replaced by the symbol of a rose (which he uses a good many of his paintings ) and the eyes of the Virgin are again closed in contemplation.   In both pictures the heart appears to be wholly un-naturalistic as compared with the rest of the bodies.  It is really as if he sees them as windows or doorways into the mystery of God.  By placing them in a frame Dali is drawing attention to the symbolic meaning of the heart, rather than as a 'real' biological object. 

These religious paintings show how Dali's attitude towards the Catholic church changed as he grew older.   As a young man he was very anti-Catholic.  Indeed one of his most controversial pictures was his picture entitled 'Sometimes I spit with pleasure at a portrait of my mother.'  (1929) ( His mother was the Catholic!)    Significantly,  his mother is represented by a drawing of the Sacred Heart.    It shows how  central was the Sacred Heart at this time as 'the' Catholic symbol.  Thus his later picture of the Sacred Heart  is a sign of how, by the 1960s,  he was changing his mind about  Catholicism and the faith of his mother. 
 Perhaps it was his way of saying 'sorry' to his mother - and to the Sacred Heart!   His painting of the Ecumenical Council  (1960) also shows that he thought the election of John XXIII was  a sign of changes in the church which he welcomed.  By this time he was, it appears, influenced by Teilhard's books which were causing a good deal of controversy at the time.  (See HERE.)  Given his approach to the Christ of  St. John of the  Cross and the Ascension  it is easy to see how Dali would have found Teilhard interesting and relevant to his fascination in the relationship between science and religion  ( he called it 'Nuclear Mysticism!) .   Perhaps Teilhard helped a sinner to come to repentance and re-discover the Sacred Heart?  He received the last sacraments of the Church on his death bed in 1989. 

So, by following the icon to Mount Carmel, I have ended up seeing myself as an  eight or nine year old boy  looking up at a print of a Dali  in St Cadoc's school in Cardiff, Wales.  Thus my initial question about what would my old university chaplain would have said about the Saints of Wales led me to Carmelite spirituality, which led me to St. John of the Cross, which brought me back to my early years in school named after a Welsh saint!!  Another full circle! Perhaps that is where this journey to the Sacred Heart began - with a childhood fascination with this image?  But with Dali of all people?!:  you could not make it up!  But, the Lord moves in mysterious ways:  because of Dali I was actually exposed to a vision given to a great Carmelite.  And it was this vision of seeing Christ looking down on the world which appears to have influenced my way of thinking ever since.  I think I am being asked to look more carefully at what St. John of the Cross tells us about the the Heart  of Jesus.... I can take a hint. 

*  I just had to check this out to make sure  that I was not suffering from false memory syndrome!  The current head of the school informed that it was indeed the picture that impressed me as a child.   It has now been replaced by a mosaic of St. Cadoc which is very beautiful. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I'd like to use some of this information in an essay Im writing about this painting. Could I have your full name to give you the credits. By the way, I'm studying English as a second language. Thank you!