Inspiration for an artistic view of ‘The Ecumenical Council’

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A detail from Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting “Las Meninas.” In place of a signature on his own painting “The Ecumenical Council,” Salvador Dalí offers the viewer a similar self-portrait in the lower-left hand corner, widely recognized to be a tribute to Velázquez. Public domain

Jesuit Father John O’Malley has recently published an (expectedly) masterful historical study of the First Vatican Council, titled “Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church” (Harvard University Press, 2018), which is required reading for everyone interested in church history and the current trials we are facing as Christians. It is from within the context of this movement toward a highly centralized and highly hierarchal church, that Salvador Dalí became inspired to create one of his most enduring masterpieces.

Profoundly moved by Pope John XXIII’s decision to shock the world by convoking a gathering of the world’s bishops, Dalí created his work “The Ecumenical Council” in 1959-60, concurrently with two other paintings of religious themes, “The Life of Mary Magdalene” and “Saint Anne and Saint John.” (All are easily viewed on the internet.) The painter was inspired by the possibilities that the institutional church could (and, in fact, did) enter into a process of offering correctives to the excesses of the “ultramontane” anomalies that had sought every answer “over the mountains [of the Alps]” in Rome, and thus underemphasized the plurality and contextual nature inherent in Christianity from its earliest stages.

To put it simply, the intentional re-opening of the church to the world from its skeptical fortress piqued his fascination, and found its way into Dalí’s contemplations and onto his canvas in a particularly stunning and lasting way.

The painting itself is divided into quarters with a tilted cross serving as the central focal point, which splits the scene into four rotating, co-equal sections. The top three contain allusions to the Trinity, largely interpreted to be the Son on the left crosshatched from a calligraphy-inspired series of etches, the Father ethereally hovering above him in an archway of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Spirit on the right where a dove alights onto a phantasmal feminine character. Scenes of Pope John’s coronation and other bishops and saints populate the background and corners. Most recognizable is Dalí’s muse Gala centrally located in the bottom quadrant in a pose obviously echoing traditional images of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine who tradition holds discovered the True Cross. A similar image of Gala appears in his earlier painting “Saint Helena of Port Lligat.” The Catalan capes and rocky coastlines that dominate his works appear in both.

In place of a signature, Dalí offers the viewer a self-portrait in the lower-left hand corner. This is widely recognized to be a tribute to Diego Velázquez’s mannerist painting “Las Meninas.” There’s even a legend that the always experimental Dalí dipped an octopus in paint and splattered it on the canvas to create some of the abstract images of the work, in place of using brushes.

If Father O’Malley’s volume explains with expertise how the increasing rigidity and propositionalism of the period between Trent and the Nouvelle Théologie of the mid-20th century has had lasting ramifications into our day, Dalí’s work (a print of which hangs in my office) represents the hope and imaginative wonder that the Second Vatican Council provided for inaugurating a world church that could start to wrest itself free from the pernicious associations with colonization and exclusion that had become entangled with our life as Christians over the centuries. Understanding both stages of development and recapturing the awe of living attuned to such possibilities are important if we hope to offer transformative witness to the 21st century global society with authenticity and effectiveness.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.