Thursday, April 5, 2007

Sacrament of The Last Supper - Salvadore Dali

This work is another excellent example of Dalí's idea of Nuclear Mysticism, in which he has combined ideas of science and religion. As in several other Dalí masterworks (namely The Ecumenical Council) we are unable to view the face of God here. The elements of the Catholic Eucharist, bread and wine, are present on the table, a direct reference back to Dalí's Catalonian heritage. The wondrous landscape of Dalí's homeland once again dominates the surrounding background, and the whole scene seems to be taking place inside some surreal and ethereal building.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, inspiring Dali to take his work in a new direction. It is possible that he adopted this interest partially in response to the Surrealists' newfound disdain for atomic science, which they once celebrated but now - post-explosion - considered irresponsible and destructive. Dali ostensibly took no moral stance on atomic research, accepting it as a fact of the modern age that required assimilation into art if art was to be truly contemporary.

The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima made quite an impression on Dali, he entered what is called his Nuclear and Atomic period. By the 1950's he had begun to focus on religious themes and in the 1960's Dali experimented with Pop and Op Art, as well as Abstract Expressionism, which eventually culminated in the stereoscopic paintings and holographs of the 1970's. The early 1950's he developed his principals of Nuclear Mysticism, in which he concluded "the very basis of life would prove to be spiral." In his "Anti-Matter Manifesto" of 1958 Dali wrote: "In the Surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today the exterior world and that of physics, has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg."

Dali's later art explores the subjects of quantum physics and genetics with a metaphysical vision. Evidence of the divine began to appear to Dali in everything. In 1963 he scribbled, "Moral law must be of divine origin, because, even before the tablets of Moses, it was already contained in the spiral, genetic code." His concept of a transcendent God had crystalised: "Based on my reason and based on what the latest scientific discoveries of our time have shown me, I am convinced that God exists. However, I do not believe in God as a matter of faith, because unfortunately I have no faith. On the other hand, God is not aware of the existence of Coca-cola, or of Salvador Dali, much less something called morals..."

Perhaps even more importantly, this work translates Dalí's desire to become Classic in that he is adhering to the rules of Divine Proportion. The theory of the Golden Section, as forwarded by Euclid, created in Dalí a whole new painting style, in which these classical artistic techniques were elevated to modern levels of mastery.

The Painting

Our eye is first drawn to the center. By the simple device of placing Christ's face at the very center of the painting, intersecting with both the line of the horizon in the distance and placing the source of the sunlight at that very point on the horizon, the figure of Christ is made to dominate the painting. It is only after taking him in, and perhaps his setting as well, that our eye is then drawn upward, at Jesus' direction, to the figure above him who otherwise dominates the work. This figure, a giant torso whose arms take in the whole of the presented space, is perhaps the final resting place of our eye as it has been directed through the canvas. Otherwise, if our eye has immediately moved from Christ to the torso above, only then do we come to take in the what appears to be a less-important setting, but what in fact will be the center of meaning for the piece. If we examine the various elements in turn, the meaning of the painting which has escaped Schaeffer and Tillich will soon become apparent to us.

Jesus' Gestures and the Figure Above Him. The gestures Jesus makes are very specific and beg explanation. We can see that Jesus is in fact making a pair of gestures: with his left hand he gestures back toward himself. With his right hand he points to the great and mysterious figure above him. What does this massive torso mean? Is it symbolic of someone in particular or is it more general? Perhaps its generalities might lead us to a specific interpretation. We can see that the figure is male. We can also see that the figure is presented to us without a face. Like Jesus, the figure at the top of the painting is also transparent: the only other person like that in the image. Could they be the same person: a Jesus at table and a transcendent Jesus of some sort? The only similar characteristics that they have other than being male and transparent are that they both have the same colour of skin and both are without crucifixion wounds. Three differences we might note are that the giant figure is a giant, unlike Jesus, is without clothing, and does not have Jesus' hair resting on his shoulders. At that superficial level, we might deny that the two are the same. So who might Jesus be gesturing toward who is above him, equally-invisible and in some way greater than he, represented here as an unrealistic difference in size? Why not the Father? In fact, what it looks as though we have here is a visual representation of Jesus' reply to his disciple Philip, from the very night of the Last Supper. In the Gospel of John, we read:Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus answered, "I am the way and truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

This reply seems a perfect translation of Jesus' gestures: "Anyone who has seen me," he indicates with his left hand, "has seen the Father" he points out with his right hand, indicating the figure that shows so much in common with Jesus. We might also note the appropriate plac of allowing placement the Father's face to be off the visible area of the canvas: it was a central warning in the Old Testament to Moses and to others that "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

At the risk of perhaps reading too much into the gestures, we might also note that the classic meaning of "right hand" and "left hand" in the Scriptures are to indicate that which is greater by the right hand, and that which is lesser by the left. The figure above Jesus is the Father, and we will see that this interpretation adds even more consistent meaning to the painting as we go on.

The Twelve-Sided Space.

The setting of the painting is distinctive if not bizarre: the space that Dali has taken great pains to represent is a dodecahedron--a twelve-sided space which we are able to perceive in the pentagon-shaped panes of the vast window space behind the table. Dali makes this space transparent like the figures in the center of the painting, although whether this is for the same reason or whether it is simply to let us see that space more clearly will take a bit of study to understand. What we can begin with is why he might set this scene in a twelve-sided space. It helps, of course, that he has told us something about his reasons. Contrary to the anecdotal and obscure conceptions in paintings on this same subject, I wanted to materialize the maximum of luminous and Pythagorian instantaneousness, based on the celestial communion of the number 12: 12 hours of the day--12 months of the year--the 12 pentagons of the dodecahedron -12 signs of the Zodiac around the sun--the 12 apostles around Christ. What exactly this means is a bit more difficult. The dodecahedron space around the subjects is not real, at least, not "real" in the sense of being part of the physical architecture containing the altar. If you examine a dodecahedron, you will find that the floor would not be flat. In fact, there would be no discernable floor, for in the arrangement of the windows that we see, there would be no plane of the figure that would be horizontal as we see here. The twelve-sided space, then, that we see here is a "spiritual" space that is present--like the figures of Christ and the Father above--but is not visible or "present" in a physical way. This space is in the same realm as the Father, for the Father is able to cast a shadow on this architecture, even if for the rest of the room it is transparent or invisible. The twelve-sided space, as Dali contends, is a symbol taken from antiquity of heaven: 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 the space.

The Twelve Around the Table.

The twelve figures kneeling in reverence around the table must command our attention. Taking traditional symbolism for granted, we easily identify these as the Twelve Apostles, Jesus' friends and disciples who were present at the Last Supper. A second look at them, however, makes us question our first, easy assumption. We see that the twelve are mirror images of one another: six sets of twins perfectly arrayed on either side of the table to duplicate one another. Hair, posture, the way their clothing drapes across their forms, even the way they catch the light: all are duplicated. The only real differences are a few switched colours: gold and blue, reversed in the clothing of one pair and in the hair of another. These are idealized figures. We may count them as the Twelve Apostles, certainly, but they are not the historic Twelve: here they have been universalized and made anonymous. Unlike in Leonardo's Last Supper, they are not important here for their specific personalities. Instead, what we are invited to notice is their action, not their identity. They kneel in reverence, in prayer, and in worship. But their attention, we might be surprised to notice, is not given to Christ. Indeed, they do not seem to be aware of the figure seated amongst them. None of them visibly react to Jesus sitting at the table for the very simple reason that Jesus is not visibly seated at the table. We see Jesus in a mysterious, transparent or spiritual way, but Jesus is not physically present and none of the Twelve respond physically for that reason. Their heads are bowed, yes, but toward the altar, not toward the figure of Jesus that we see. What does inspire their worship and prayer is what is there on the table, solid and casting shadows, unlike Jesus: the bread and the wine, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Last Supper. Here at last we come to the core of the meaning of the painting. What we are presentedwith here is not the Last Supper. At least, not an historical Last Supper as Leonardo painted. Instead, we have exactly what the title of the work said we had, and what both Schaeffer and Dali's own comment, while referring to the figures as "apostles," proved not to be particularly helpful: "Approaching the secret organization. Each apostle must be a luminous instantaneous ecstasy, the same as the signs of the Zodiac encircling the sun." (Dali's note on a detail of The Sacrament of the Last Supper, on the first four disciples to Jesus' right.) Tillich ignored: we have the sacrament of the Last Supper. We have a painting whose true subject is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Real Presence is a cornerstone of Catholic mysticism, and it is especially the mystical end of Catholicism that grabbed Dali's attention. The Real Presence of Christ is the recognition that in some special and particular way Christ is truly "in" the Eucharist and thereby "in" the believer who engages in receiving that sacrament. The classic definition of a sacrament--a visible sign of an invisible reality--conveys quite well the idea of what the Catholic is experiencing in receiving the Eucharist: that in the visible sign of bread and wine which is here on the table, solid and present and visible to the twelve around it--the invisible reality - Christ himself, the sacrament of God on Earth, our Father here present in this mystical twelve-sided heaven--is truly and Really Present. It was not Dali's intention to paint a mere Last Supper, although the twelve anonymous figures around the table invoke and remind us of that historical occasion. 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 here on Earth makes present the realities of the worship in Heaven. The Real Presence of Christ means the Real Presence of the Father. The community drawn together in recognition of this miracle--the Church--shows the Real Presence of the Holy Spirit, and where the Trinity is, is Heaven: unseen with our eyes, but sensed and recognized in our prayer.


Our two theologians, Schaeffer and Tillich, both seem to have gone astray by making the most natural of mistakes regarding Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper, and that is to take it at first glance as being a Last Supper. Our eye, trained by the fame of the da Vinci masterpiece, makes that immediate leap when we are confronted with Christ at table and twelve figures gathered around him. But the signs that this is not the historical Last Supper, even if these twelve anonymous figures still may stand for the Twelve Apostles, are plentiful: the mysterious spiritual nature of the Jesus who sits, without interaction with his fellows, at the table, along with the similar spiritual nature of the transcendent figure above him and that of the space in which they are gathered, should alert the viewer immediately that they are being given a vision of something special and distinct from the Last Supper the night before Jesus' execution. Instead, we have seen how the interaction between the spiritual Real Presence of Jesus, in relation to His Father and the space of heaven, turn our focus--along with the attention of the twelve--to the elements of bread and wine which are visibly at the center of reverence upon the table. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, illustrated in all the personal and divine dynamism that Dali could muster, is the true subject of the painting, and remains with us as an image of iconic depth and power, reminding us of the true nature of this most frequent moment of Catholic mysticism: one which always threatens to be lost in the limits of our own vision.

Completed in 1955 after nine months of work, Salvador Dali's painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper has remained one of his most popular compositions. From its popularity at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where almost upon its arrival in 1955 it replaced Renoir's Girl with a Watering Can as the most popular piece in the museum.