Salvador Dali's "Sacrament of the Last Supper" was by far the
most popular painting in the National Gallery of Art when it
was unveiled in 1955, a gift from the great banker-collector
Chester Dale. Now it hangs in an obscure corner by the
elevator on the mezzanine of East Wing - the one modern work
excluded from the large exhibition of Dale's bequest to the
Gallery currently on view in the West wing.
Denounced by theologians and dismissed by art critics, the
picture will get a new and more positive look, thanks to the
exhibit "Salvador Dali: The Late Work" at the High Museum of
Art in Atlanta (now open until Jan. 9, 2011), and the
research of Catholic theologian Michael Anthony Novak, who
presented a paper on the subject at Notre Dame University in
Dali's imposing canvas depicts a semi-transparent,
clean-shaven Christ surrounded by two groups of six communing
votaries at a long table. The 12 men are anonymous; to left
and right they are mirror images of each other, and their
faces are hidden. Christ emerges from a sea surrounded by
mountains, and little boats are visible through his body.
Before him is a beaker of wine, and at the front of the
table, two broken halves of a bread loaf. Christ gestures
toward himself with his left hand; with his right hand he
points up to a giant, faceless male torso with outstretched
A huge dodecahedron, the regular solid described by Plato as
embodying the universe, encloses the space. Everything is
painted with the hyper-realistic touch that made Dali famous.
Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who mistook the picture
for a "Last Supper," called it "junk."
But Novak's 2005 study, backed up by unpublished information
in the National Gallery's curatorial archive, proves that
Dali never intended to paint the historical scene of Christ's
Passover meal with his apostles, but rather the sacrament of
the Eucharist in which the bread and wine of the sacrament
are transformed into the Redeemer's Body and Blood. He wrote,
"Dali's true intention, which he has masterfully accomplished
on this canvas, is to remind us of what is occurring in every
celebration of this mystery of bread and wine: that the
worship hereon Earth makes present the realities of worship
The exhibit in Atlanta, meanwhile, shows that Dali, far from
having lost the innovative fire of his youth, was a pioneer
paving the way for the Pop Art and Photo Realism of the later
In his early work, Dalí (1904-1989) had railed against
the Church. He was a leader of the Surrealist movement, which
sought to make the subconscious manifest in art. However, in
1941 he announced that he had returned to the Catholicism of
his youth, and his conversion became public in 1949, when
Pope Pius XII blessed his painting, the "Madonna of Port
Atlanta exhibit curator Elliott King reports that Dali
"became captivated with nuclear physics. For the first time,
physics was providing proof for the existence of God, he
said, and it was now up to artists to integrate this
knowledge into the great artistic tradition. He called this
blend of religion and physics `nuclear mysticism' and it
directed his art through the 1950s."
Two of his great religious compositions have been loaned to
Atlanta: the "Christ of Saint John of the Cross" of 1950
(voted the most popular painting in Scotland in 2007), and
the "Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina," painted in 1952
to celebrate the newly proclaimed dogma of the Assumption of
the Virgin, and exhibited publicly for the first time since
`Do One More Religious Picture'
A profile of Dale in the New Yorker Magazine on Oct. 25,
1958, quotes Dale: "I gave the Dali `Crucifixion' to the
Metropolitan and I inspired his `Last Supper.' After the
`Crucifixion' I told him he had to do one more religious
picture - `The Sacrament of the Last Supper.' He didn't do
anything else for a whole year.'"
"I didn't commission it, but I reserved the first look at it,
and I bought it on sight," Dale boasted, adding that he had
challenged Dali to match the work of the Renaissance master
In a paragraph in the National Gallery's curatorial file (but
oddly missing from all published accounts), Dali wrote of
this picture: "The first holy communion on earth is conceived
as a sacred rite of the greatest happiness for humanity. This
rite is expressed with plastic means and not with literary
ones. My ambition was to incorporate to Zurbaran's mystical
realism the experimental creativeness of modern painting in
my desire to make it classic."
An undated gallery handout in the file alludes to an apparent
surrealistic double image in the long hair of the Savior on
the left side of his head that looks like the silhouette of a
perching bird. If so, this could allude to the Holy Spirit.
The headless torso completes the Trinity as God the Father.
In fact, Novak writes, the two gestures of Jesus come from an
account in John's Gospel on the night of the Last Supper.
When Philip asks Jesus to "show us the Father," Jesus
replies, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." As
portrayed by Dali, Christ's left hand points to "me" and the
right, to the "Father" above.
Novak concludes: "It is heaven that is present, heaven is the
space in which the event we see in the painting is taking
place. It is the figure of the Father, then, who fills both
heaven and earth as they are presented in this painting, with
His outstretched arms taking in the whole of space."
If you go
Dali's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" hangs in the East
Building (4th and Constitution Ave, Washington, D.C.) of the
National Gallery of Art opposite a special exhibit of the
Italian 16th century artist Arcimboldo, who began his career
as a designer of stained-glass windows for Milan cathedral
and ended up creating bizarre "heads" built up of fruits,
vegetables and animal life. Arcimboldo was rediscovered in
the 1930s by admirers of Surrealism, who delighted in his
knack for discovering double meanings in the shapes of the
natural world. Dali seems to have gone the opposite way, from
surreal transformations of the visible, back to his own,
highly personal vision of the Catholic faith.