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Dali & Grunewald – Two Images of Crucifixion

May 17, AD2017

Two Images, One Lord

It would be difficult to name a person who is the subject of more works of art than Jesus Christ. For each such work, in a very real sense, every painting, sculpture, drawing, carving, mural, and crucifix reveals an artist’s vision of Jesus.

Salvador Dali painted a famous image of Jesus, known as his Christ Of St. John Of The Cross. Dali himself noted the striking differences between this Christ and the image painted/sculpted in the sixteenth century A.D. by an artist named Matthias Grunewald. Dali stated that he wanted to portray a Christ that was the “absolute opposite of Grunewald’s.” The central section of Matthias Grunewald’s (born Mathis Gothardt) Isenheim Altarpiece is a crucifixion scene with a grotesque anguished, nearly-dead Christ. Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John Of The Cross (Dali’s Christ) shows Christ, immediately following His death, still on the cross, but in an almost peaceful, almost triumphant position above the world.

The Dali Christ, painted in 1951, is an oil on canvas painting which measures 205 cm by 116 cm (80.7 inches by 45.6 inches). It is presently in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. The central panel of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is oil on wood and measures 269 cm by 307 cm (105 7/8 inches by 120 7/8 inches). It is in the Musee d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France.

Differences

Editor’s note: The following links will give you the ability to examine the differences in these two paintings. The Dali here. The Grunewald here, is viewed in two positions. When open it displays the sculptures of Nicolas of Hagenau. When the panels are closed, Grunewald’s painted panels are shown.

There are striking visual differences of these two artistic interpretations of Christ’s crucifixion. The primary visual difference in the two works is that Grunewald’s Christ is a suffering, tortured, grotesque human being while Dali’s Christ, by comparison, is almost healthy and, although still on the cross, at rest. Grunewald’s Christ’s wears the crown of thorns and his flesh is marked with the scars and lesions of ergotism, a disease referred to as “St. Anthony’s fire”. Dali’s Christ is muscular and robust with a full head of beautiful hair. Grunewald’s Christ is still on earth in his dying agony, but Dali’s Christ is at peace and above the earth. The fingers of the hands of Dali’s Christ are supple and in a natural pose. The hands of Grunewald’s Christ expressively convey “his intense physical pain and spiritual reaching out,” (Cumming 35) — they are tight-muscled and extended as if to say “My God, My God why have you forsaken me ?”

Similarities

The two crucifixions are similar in that they both have: a primarily black background which serves to make the images of the persons portrayed stand out; a body of water; a dominant Christ figure; and other persons beneath the cross.One striking similarity in both works is the artists’ use of hands and fingers. There are multiple sources of soothing light in the Dali work with a heavenly glow on the Christ figure from above and an aurora borealis type glow in the sky behind hills at the painting’s bottom. There is no such sunshine-like light in Grunewald’s work and his background is “the dark setting of a wasteland” (Bradbury 39).

Dali’s Christ has no written words. The traditional “INRI” (which stands for the Latin words Iesus Nazerenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews) is omitted from the sheet above the Dali Christ figure. Grunewald’s work not only includes the “INRI” prominently displayed above Christ, but also includes the Latin words Ileum oportet crescere me autem min . . . (He must increase and I must decrease) adjacent the figure of St. John the Baptist, who spoke these words (John 3:30-35).

Grunewald’s Message

The visual differences explain the different approaches of each artist. Matthias Grunewald’s message was one of “graphic horror and emotional intensity” (Bradbury 39). He was commissioned to paint the altarpiece for the high altar of the chapel of the monastery of St. Anthony at Isenheim near Strasbourg. Also located at this monastery was a hospice which treated those suffering with ergotism. This is the setting for an altarpiece that would be viewed on a daily basis by those attending mass or praying in the chapel, including both victims of the disease and those who cared for them knowing there was no hope of recovery for those they cared for. Grunewald’s message was a sermon in oil for those who were suffering.

The figure of John the Baptist, a live John the Baptist, could give a disease victim hope since, prior to the time of Christ’s crucifixion, John the Baptist had been beheaded by order of King Herod. It is this figure of John the Baptist with his right index finger prominently pointing to Christ which emphasizes the words “He must increase and I must decrease.” John the Baptist — who had died — appears very healthy in the painting.
Those suffering from disease could also identify with the other figures in the painting. Mary the Mother of God looks upon her son, as does Mary Magdalene the sinner; but Mary God’s Mother is clothed in the white of innocence while Mary Magdalene is clothed in orangish red. The hands of both Marys are raised in prayerful supplication to Christ. John the Apostle’s hands tenderly hold Christ’s mother.

Grunewald: Jesus and John the Baptist

Considering size alone, the figure of Christ dominates the work. “The size of the figures is intended to reflect their importance” (Cumming 34). The size differences also serve as a visual embodiment of the Latin admonition adjacent John the Baptist (“He must increase, I must decrease”).

Blood flows from Christ’s knarled and ghastly feet onto the earth just as blood flows from the breast of the lamb into the gold chalice at the bottom of the painting. The lamb is the sacrificed Lamb of God and its bleeding wound is caused by a cross that pierces its breast. Those attending Mass before this altarpiece would learn from this work that it is Christ’s blood that is received in communion (symbolized by the blood flowing into the chalice) and that the shedding of this blood which is also shown flowing onto the ground brought salvation to all on earth.

Grunewald’s Time

Grunewald lived during a time (c. 1470 – 1528 A.D.) of social and religious unrest. Throughout Europe the secular power of the Roman Catholic Church was under attack as was the feudal system with its two classes, the rich and the poor. Many religious people dealt with what they perceived as societal chaos and religious conflict by trying to identify themselves with a suffering Christ (Lucie-Smith 215).

The Renaissance itself is often seen in terms of the embracing of scientific explanation and intellectual individualism, and of the triumph of human reason as opposed to the dogmatic pronouncements of both kings and Popes. By Grunewald’s time, humanism was an accepted philosophy and Renaissance style was in vogue in the arts (von Brauchitsch 146). But Grunewald’s rejection of both the popular humanism and of Renaissance artistic style is evident in the Isenheim Altarpiece. In doing so, he preached an unpopular sermon on suffering and “achieved an oppressive religious intensity” (von Brauchitsch 146).

One interesting detail in Grunewald’s work serves as a comment on a disputed point in the on-going debate about the nature of the church. Martin Luther (and others) espoused the view that Christ instituted only two sacraments — baptism and the holy Eucharist — while the Roman Catholic Church declared that there were seven sacraments. Interestingly, Grunewald’s work contains symbols of only two sacraments. The lamb and chalice signify the Eucharist and the water flowing behind the cross symbolizes baptism. Grunewald, ironically, had the chance to “practice what he preached” in this work. He died of ergotism in 1528 A.D.

Dali’s Rising Christ

Dali’s Christ does not portray a risen Christ in heavenly glory; but, in comparison to Grunewald’s, Dali’s Christ figure is nearly glorious. Beginning in 1949, Dali entered a period of religious mysticism (Finaldi 200). He began practicing Roman Catholicism and became a political conservative (Lucie-Smith II 169). Dali’s Christ is one expression of his new-found religiosity.

The cross in Dali’s Christ is not standing on the earth, but rather is suspended in the sky; Christ’s head is bowed, not visible; and he is looking down upon the earth. Dali received the inspiration for such a pose from a drawing attributed to John of the Cross (Radford 243, Wilson 20).

Light

Light suffuses the painting. There appear to be at least three light sources — one above Christ bathing Him in a very alive, and perhaps pre-resurrection glow. This light from heaven says “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5). Another light source is behind the clouds just below the base of the cross. This light is either behind the clouds or it is simply more of the light coming from above. Another light, less intense and more diffuse than the light from above, is behind the hills near the bottom of the painting. Light is also reflected from the boat hull at the center bottom of the painting.

Following the light with one’s eye causes one’s view to move from the top, to the bottom, and then to focus on the image of Christ. The clouds, hills, sea, boat, shore, and fisherman are all illuminated by it. Such light declares visually that Jesus is the light of the world and it is a symbol of the salvific efficacy of the sacrifice depicted by Christ on the cross for the earth and for all men and women.

Christ’s hands and feet form an intriguing triangle near whose center is the almost-circular head of Christ. Dali saw this as a symbolic representation of the cosmos and of the universe seen as an expression of deity (Wach 98). He also said that he was portraying what he perceived in a “mystic reverie” brought about by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Finaldi 200).

Dali’s Christ was “revolutionary” (Schiebler 97) for its time. Christ is not suffering. His face is not visible — Dali “achieves a certain impersonal tranquility by avoiding the face” (Wach 98). His body is a thing of beauty. This was not by accident. Dali intended to portray beauty, peace and redemption, not pain (Radford 243).

Dali’s Christ is not dying in anguish. He is not looking up to His father for succor. He is looking down on the earth that He has saved. In portraying Christ this way, Dali sought to present the beauty of God (Finaldi 198) in a “painting with more beauty and joy than has ever been painted before”.

Dali’s Christ, for its time in the early 1950’s was very unlike much of what, at the time, was referred to as “modern art.” His beautiful Christ echoes Renaissance ideals of perfection and is an implicit rejection of what he called the “mechanistic materialism” of modern painting” (Finaldi 200).

Conclusion

Grunewald and Dali each had a vision of a better place beyond this life. This place, for both artists, was made possible by the crucifixion, suffering, and death of Christ. Each artist, however, chose unique images to convey his message. Grunewald’s is a statement about suffering and its role in helping a Christian to achieve heaven. Dali portrays a glowing Christ soaring above, yet intent upon, the earth and its people whom He has redeemed, a Christ now beyond time looking down on the people He loves.

REFERENCE WORKS:

Bradbury, Kirsten, et al, eds. Essential History of Art. Bath UK: Parragon Publishing, 2000.
Cumming, Robert. The World’s Greatest Paintings Explored and Explained. London: DK Publishing, 1995.
Finaldi, Gabriele. The Image of Christ. London: National Gallery Company, 2000.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Art & Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Lives of the Great 20th Century Artists. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Radford, Robert. Dali (Art & Ideas). London: Phaidon Press, 1997
Schiebler, Ralf. Dali. New York: Prestel, 1996
Von Brauchitsch, Boris. Renaissance An Illustrated Historical Overview. New York: Barron’s 2000.
Wach, Kenneth. Salvador Dali. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Books and Art, Jesus Christ • Tags:

About the Author:

Guy McClung lives with his wife of 44+ years south of Houston, Texas helping inventors develop and patent their inventions. Following two stints in the seminary with the missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, total 5 years (for which he is truly and forever thankful), he came to the realization that God was not calling him to that type of vowed obedience; so he left the seminary and got married. Seven children and eleven grandchildren later, he decided to try to write some words that would convey his thanks to God almighty for blessing after blessing after blessing.

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  • Michael Dulick

    This is a beautiful article! But, one thing: somewhere I read that Dali, a Spaniard, had painted Christ as a bull, his arms the long, fierce horns of the bull, and the lack of a face to deepen the impression, Christ’s body the head of the bull. With just a little squinting, that’s exactly what the picture looks like. Christ’s weakest moment, his strongest moment!

    • Guy McClung

      Thank you, Michael. That is an amazing insight. Note-you can get a fairly inexpensive copy of Dali’s Christ. I think it is one of the most profitable reprints of an art work in history. Guy