01. Perspective Changes Everything
It is exactly this fact that makes Christ of St. John of the Cross such an interesting, provocative and valuable work of art.
Painted by twentieth-century artist Salvador Dalí in 1951, Christ of St. John of the Cross defies our familiar vantage point on the crucifixion. Painted on a massive canvas (the original hangs in a Glasgow art museum and is 80 inches high by 45 inches wide) and drawing inspiration from a sketch of the crucifixion originally credited to sixteenth-century mystic St. John of the Cross, this work challenges us to examine our assumptions, our memories, and our experiences of Christ on the cross.
Memory bears with it something called artifact, which can be a feeling or interpretation that we associate with the place or circumstances under which the memory is formed. For believers, our remembering of Christ crucified is often informed by the way in which we first encountered Christ—whether it was in a Sunday school classroom, a Bible study, a rosary or through Scripture. When we seek to encounter Jesus, sometimes our artifacts of memory make an impact on how we experience Him today. Just as my elementary school playground loomed large and imposing in my memory, so too can our memories shape how we encounter Christ.
As we seek to know God more fully as He is, a change in point of view can help us to see more clearly who God is and remove the lens of who He has been to us. Which is not to say that our memories or perspectives in the past have been false or distorted; instead, it is a reminder that God calls us to a daily encounter with Him that brings fresh visions of who He is and how He loves. An imaginative encounter with Christ at Golgotha brings these truths alive.
So how can we embrace the disorientation that a sudden change in perspective elicits in order to see Christ anew and draw closer to Him? How can Dalí’s Christ of St. John of the Cross help us to embrace not only the sacrificial death of Jesus, but our own death to self that we are called to experience each and every day? (See Mark 8:35)
First, we must enter into the painting. While our eyes are more quickly drawn to the figure of Christ at the top of the image, the perspective of seeming to hover above the cross is jarring, and our eyes slip to the bottom of the canvas instead. Here, Dalí has changed the vantage point, and we feel more at ease with the bucolic image of fisher- men at their boats. In his meditation on Christ of St. John of the Cross in his book Redemption, Alister McGrath puts it this way:
The lower scene depicts two fishermen, standing by the shore of a preternaturally brilliant and gorgeous lake. Immediately, we identify it as the Sea of Galilee. Is this Dalí’s way of reminding us of the calling of the first disciples? On closer inspection, things turn out to be a little more complex. The fishermen are wearing seventeenth-century dress. In fact, they seem to have been copied from Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda, painted some time before 1635. And the “lake” is actually a harbour—in this case, Dalí’s home town of Port Lligat, on the Spanish Costa Brava, which had already featured in his The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950).
Then we realize what is going on. Dalí, like other leading Spanish artists of the twentieth century, including Picasso, regarded Velázquez as Spain’s greatest painter. Port Lligat is the place where Dalí lived. What Dalí has done is recast the calling of the disciples, setting it in the cultural, intellectual and geographical world that he knew so well. The calling has been transposed to the realities of Dalí’s own world of everyday life and artistic aspiration.Alister McGrath, Redemption (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 65–66.
Take a moment to let this part of the painting sink in. Dalí’s recasting of the calling of the disciples invites us to enter the biblical passage ourselves.