Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 16

A Meditation on Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

O Taste and See

Tara M. Owens

Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951 (oil on canvas) by Salvador Dali (1904- 89) Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, Glasgow, Scotland/ © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)/The Bridgeman Art Library“As a man is, so he sees.”
—William Blake

Several years ago, I took my husband on a tour of the most significant places in my child- hood. We visited homes, churches, parks, graveyards and even my elementary school playground. Throughout our travels, the thing that continually astonished me the most wasn’t the vividness of the memories, but how utterly different the spaces they inhabited not only looked but felt, now that I was an adult.

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.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18–19, NIV1984All Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™. All rights reserved.)

As you take in the vivid colors of the shoreline and the preternatural lighting, reflect on your own calling as a disciple of Jesus. What were you doing prior to that calling? What was your day-to-day activity like? Do you remember the day and the circumstances under which you heard Jesus call you to follow Him? Or was your calling more gradual? How have you been called out of your previous lifestyle into something familiar but different, as the disciples were called from being fishermen to being fishers of men? How have your daily habits been illuminated in a new way by the light of Heaven shining on you?

Now spend some time looking at the positions of the fishermen in relation to the viewer of this painting. The perspective from which you are looking at this scene is also the perspective that Christ would have had on the men as they worked. Notice that the figure on the far left is turned with his back toward Jesus. Where in your life recently have you found your- self positioned away from Christ’s call to follow Him, either intentionally or unintentionally? Spend some time reflecting on your orientation toward God.

Then examine the second fisherman, standing close to the boat. The temptation for that figure would be to stay with what is closest to him, with what he knows, which is a life of fishing. Christ’s invitation to him is to leave security and skills to follow Him into the unknown. Has Jesus similarly been inviting you to leave what you know, even what you do well, in order to grow closer to God and follow Him?

The scene at the Sea of Galilee or, in Dalí’s case, Port Lligat is lit flamboyantly. Dalí’s unorthodox use of light reminds us of the power and wonder of the light of Christ. Where natural lighting would obscure and soften the edges of the scene before us, God’s light brings the details into sharp focus, even if they are details that we do not want to see.

The light at the bottom of the scene contrasts starkly with the darkness around the crucified Christ. As our eyes are drawn upward, so the darkness increases. Suddenly our perspective shifts, and we are hit with a sense of vertigo. McGrath explains:

The scenario appears to be a physical impossibility—the crucified Christ, suspended in mid-air. . . . The Christ of St. John of the Cross hangs without any obvious support, his head down and arms stretched tight, as if he is straining to break free from the wooden frame enclosing him.

For Dalí, the cross seemed to be presented to the viewer as if it were a crucifix being held towards someone who is dying, so that they might behold and kiss their Saviour. To enter into Dalí’s vision for this painting, try to imagine that you are lying on your deathbed with an unseen hand holding the cross above you. You cannot see any- thing but the cross itself. You can only focus on it and reflect on what you see. It is an ideal stimulus to the spiritual reflections that Ignatius Loyola believed would reinvigorate the Christian life. The anticipation of death is a powerful incentive to live the life of faith to the full.McGrath, 66–67.

Take a moment now to meditate on the image of Jesus on the cross as McGrath suggests. Just like our vantage point above the cross, contemplating lying on our own death bed is a dizzying perspective. We so often shy away from imagining our last moments, refusing to embrace our own limits and mortality. To imaginatively lay down before Dalí’s Christ of St. John of the Cross is a humbling experience.

As you spend time in contemplation, imagine what it would be like to have your entire world reduced to the image of the cross in front of you. You cannot move. You cannot speak. You cannot do useful things for Christ. You cannot even pray. The totality of everything you have lived is summed up in this figure nailed to the cross. Imagine what it would be like to find yourself suspended between two worlds—your mortal life and the eternity that is to come—just as Christ was suspended on the cross. Just as Christ’s crucifixion split history in two, so it splits these last moments of mortal life.

As you gaze upon Christ, ask yourself, as St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests in his Spiritual Exercises:

  • What have I done for Christ?
  • What am I now doing for Christ?
  • What ought I to do for Christ?
  • As I see him like this, hanging upon the cross, I shall meditate on what comes to mind.

Spend time in imaginative encounter with Christ, either through Dalí’s painting or in any other way that feels appropriate to you. Meditate on the questions before you. As you gaze on Christ, let the awareness of the lower part of the painting inform your thoughts. Know that you have been called and are being called by Christ to follow Him through death and into life. Through the change in perspective brought on by your contemplations and the unusual point of view of Christ of St. John of the Cross, let Jesus change you through His love.

02.  About the Artist

Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) was a well-known Spanish surrealist painter. notorious for his flamboyant style and bizarre images, Dalí’s most famous work is his 1931 piece, the Persistence of Memory. Although popularly thought of as an artist who manipulated the viewer to make political or philosophical statements, Dalí returned in his later years to his roots in the Catholic faith. Post-World War II, Dalí became increasingly devout and sought to square his faith with the overwhelming popular fears surrounding the dawning of the atomic age. Christ of St. John of the Cross is one of the last major works he completed before his death.


Tara M. Owens is the senior editor of Conversations Journal. a certified spiritual director with Anam Cara ministries (www. She practices in Colorado and around the world through skype and other technologies. She is profoundly grateful to do ministry and life with her husband and best friend, Bryan. If you’d like to continue the conversation with Tara, she can be reached at, or you can follower her on twitter at t_owens.