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A new look at Dali’s `Sacrament’
Nora Hamerman | For the Catholic Herald
COURTESY PHOTO | NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Salvador Dali’s “Sacrament of the Last Supper” was donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1955 by banker-collector Chester Dale.

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 2005.

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 arms.

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But Novak’s 2005 study, backed up by unpublished information in the National Gallery’s curatorial archive, proves that Dali never intended to paint the historical scene of Christ’s Passover meal with his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 in Heaven.”

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 20th century.

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 Lligat.”

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 1959.

`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 Tintoretto.

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.

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