Since its purchase in 1956 by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Sacrament of the Last Supper, an oil painting by Salvador Dalí (1904-89), has replaced Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Girl With a Watering Can” as the museum’s most popular work (pushing her “into the mud” as Time magazine quipped). The popularity of Dalí’s image has persisted despite critical hostility toward the painting and the gallery’s own ambivalence. It hangs in a corner by the elevators.
Theologians, like the Protestants Francis Schaeffer and Paul Tillich, have also weighed in. For Schaeffer, Dalí’s image was a clear example of Christian meaning being lost to a vague existentialism: “This intangible Christ which Dalí painted is in sharp contrast to the bodies of the apostles who are physically solid in the picture. Dalí explained in his interviews that he had found a mystical meaning for life in the fact that things are made up of energy rather than solid mass. Because of this, for him there was a reason for a vault into an area of nonreason to give him the hope of meaning.”
Tillich’s view of the painting, conveyed during a lecture on religion and art, was reported by Time magazine: “Tillich deplored Dalí’s work as a sample of the very worst in ‘what is called the religious revival of today.’ The depiction of Jesus did not fool Tillich: ‘A sentimental but very good athlete on an American baseball team... The technique is a beautifying naturalism of the worst kind. I am horrified by it!’ Tillich added it all up: ‘Simply junk!’”
Both theologians misunderstood the image, however, as a depiction of the Last Supper. That is not surprising. Familiarity with the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece causes most of us to make that leap when we encounter Jesus at table with 12 men around him. But Dalí has given us something more.
Salvador Dalí, Catholic
Dalí returned to the Catholic faith in 1949. His journey home had started years earlier when he found himself stirred by the poetry of of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. Dalí’s first painting with an explicitly religious theme, the surrealist “Temptation of Saint Anthony,” appeared in 1946. By the time of his public embrace of Catholicism, however, Dalí had broken with the Surrealists (though he remains the most well-known of the Surrealist painters) and had announced his intention to “become classical,” combining Surrealist visual liberties with a High Renaissance treatment of the body.
Dalí was excited by the possibilities of expressing mystical ideas in light of new visions of reality made possible by nuclear physics. He dismissed the “science versus religion” dichotomy, noting “not a single philosophic, moral, aesthetic or biological discovery allows the denial of God.” His Surrealist art had been dominated by Freudian motifs, but from then on, his art would take on the Christian heritage in its content and depth. Dalí began to explore a mystical edge of Christianity that had been particularly challenged by a sterile view of modern science.
A Close Look
By placing Christ’s face at the center of the painting, which intersects with the horizon line, and by placing the sunlight’s source at that intersection point, the figure of Christ dominates “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” The Christ then directs our eye upward to the figure that would otherwise dominate the painting, a giant torso whose arms span the width of the picture plane. This figure is likely the intended focus because our eye is directed around the canvas to this spot; both figures are transparent. Christ gestures with his left hand toward himself and with his right hand points to the figure above. He looks like a visual representation of Jesus’ reply to his disciple Philip, who asked at the Last Supper, “Lord, show us the Father….” “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” Jesus replied, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9).
The Father’s face is appropriately off the canvas; this is the transcendent God who warned Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The full presence of the Triune God is made complete by the inclusion of an illusory Holy Spirit dove perched on Christ’s left shoulder, composed of the lines of his hair and jaw.
The setting is distinctive: a dodecahedron, or 12-sided space, that we perceive in the pentagon-shaped windowpanes behind the table. The architecture is also transparent. The dodecahedron is an ancient symbol of heaven, where this event is taking place. This is the realm of the Father, who casts a shadow on the otherwise invisible architecture. With his outstretched arms the Father embraces both heaven and earth.
Assuming traditional symbolism, we would identify those at table as the Twelve Apostles. A second look makes us question that assumption. For these are mirror images of one another: six sets of twins around the table, not the historical followers of Jesus. The figures painted here are not important for their personalities, but for their actions: their reverent prayer and worship. They direct their attention not to Christ, for he is not visibly seated with them, but toward the altar. What inspires their worship is set on the table, solid and casting shadows: the bread and the wine. This is the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Last Supper.
The Real Presence
Instead of painting a historical Last Supper as Leonardo did, Dalí gives us the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The real presence is a cornerstone of Catholic spirituality. The mystical aspect of the doctrine caught Dalí’s attention. The classic definition of a sacrament (a visible sign of an invisible reality) conveys well the Catholic understanding. On the table are the bread and wine. Also depicted is the invisible reality—Christ, the sacrament of God on earth, the Father in this mystical 12-sided heaven—truly and really present to those who receive him.
Dalí’s intention is to make visible what occurs in every celebration of the Mass: that the worship 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—reveals the real presence of the Holy Spirit.Where the Trinity is, heaven is: unseen with our eyes, but sensed and recognized in our prayer.