It may be surprising to some Christians that neither the crucifix, nor the transfixed beams of the Latin or Greek cross, were commonly used images in the earliest days of the spread of the faith. Visits to the catacombs in Rome make clear that allusions to the Good Shepherd, the sign of Jonah, the “anchor” of faith, and the monogram of the Chi-Rho representing the Greek word for Messiah were far more common.
But we know that over the centuries the instruments of the Passion and the manner of Jesus’s execution became the primary iconographical symbols of Christianity. A recent book by Robin Jensen called “The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy” (Harvard University Press, 2017) traces this history in astounding detail.
The varieties of depictions of the tree on which the condemned Christ hung are virtually limitless: from gruesome realism (Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece) to allegorical splendor (the mosaics of San Clemente), from bejeweled Ottonian majesty to wooden Franciscan simplicity.
Two profound contributions to this tradition are Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” and “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus).”
The first was painted in 1951 and looks down upon the hanging body from a position situated somewhere above it (a reverse perspective is offered from beneath his feet in the 1958 work “The Ascension of Christ”). Both are related to what he called a “cosmic dream” he had in 1950. Legend has it that Dalí was inspired by this vision to almost obsessively study the effect gravity would have on the body from these variety of angles, even employing a Hollywood stuntman to use as a model to trace the lines of muscles and tendons stretched to their limit.
The connection with Saint John of the Cross comes from a sketch the 16th century friar made of the contorted body hung on oversized nails. Dalí was inspired by the drawing, but added some unique theological points. There is a triangular composition that brings to mind the Trinity, with the central circular bowed head of Christ representing infinity. The seaside dawn under his feet highlights the coming Sun of Justice, and the fishermen obviously call to mind the disciples and our Christian apostolic charge. Unfortunately, two different vandals attacked the painting at various times, but it has been restored to its original condition.
The second, a more surrealist presentation of the crucifixion, was painted in 1954. In this work, the Christ levitates above a geometric figure known as a tesseract, the four-dimensional convex polytope emphasizing Dalí’s consistent engagement with nuclear science, mathematics and metaphysics. In place of nails, small blocks seem to invisibly pin the body in place. This “transcendent cubism” as he called it, seems to argue that the ostensibly disparate worlds of faith and science can, and for him do, coexist. The frozen figure floats above a patterned chessboard, in a state of apparent robust physical health, with no signs of the flagellation, impaling or crowning with thorns. Christ’s victory over the grave, and over a superficial and simplistic understanding of physical reality, is readily apparent. Blending the pious with the surreal, Dalí’s wife Gala appears as one of the women at the foot of cross, dressed in the elegant draped robes of counter-Reformation styles. The piece is at once arresting and provocative, without being blasphemous in any way.
As we continue to behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world, we ought to realize that the central moment in human history speaks to those in every generation, albeit sometimes in utterly novel and distinctive ways. Dalí has offered us two radically different contributions to broaden these infinite horizons, and through them we can ponder anew Christ’s relationship with humanity and with all of cosmic reality.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, PhD., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.