Sunday, 4 April 2010


Here's another post from and about Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

Salvador Dali's "Christ of Saint John of the Cross" (1951) depicts Jesus on the cross, suspended in a dark sky over a body of water, over fishermen and their boar. It is a depiction of the crucifixion without nails, blood or crown of thorns. Dalí believed that these typical elements would detract from the vision of Christ he shows here. The painting is based on a drawing by the 16th century Spanish friar Saint John of the Cross (hence its name). The composition of Christ is also based on a triangle and circle (the triangle is formed by Christ's arms; the circle is formed by Christ's head). The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity, and the circle may allude the Platonic concept of perfect abstract forms. Dalí explained the inspiration behind the painting thus:
"In the first place, in 1950, I had a 'cosmic dream' in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the 'nucleus of the atom.' This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it 'the very unity of the universe,' the Christ!"

Dali's words show how, in a typically distinctive way, the painting enters into the never-ending debate between science and religion. The importance of depicting Christ in the extreme angle evident in the painting was also said to have been revealed to Dali in a dream. The painting and intellectual property rights were acquired by Glasgow Corporation in the early 1950s for £8,200 - a price considered high at the time. The painting was put on public display in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. In 1961, the canvas was damaged by a member of the public (wielding a brick) because of his belief that the painting diminishes the status of Jesus (since the viewpoint of the artist looks down on Christ, rather than up to him). Thankfully, the painting was eventually restored.

When I was a child, my dad would take me to Kelvingrove occasionally on Sunday afternoons (there was nothing else open in Glasgow on Sundays back then, of course). Among other attractions (the glass beehive, the mannequin couple in Japanese costume whom I thought were actual people and really good at standing still, the ship models), this painting grew to become my favourite thing there. I developed a personal ritual for viewing it. The painting hung at the end of a long balcony. Starting at the furthest point from it, I worked out how many paces it took to reach the painting. so I could start at the other end of the balcony, with eyes closed, walk towards it, then open my eyes to be inside the picture, nearest the little fishermen, gazing up at the huge figure on the cross, floating above my head. Though too young to know or use the word, I undoubtedly got an experience of awe from this.

In 1993, "Christ of St John of the Cross" was moved to the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Indeed, I've heard it said that the main purpose of the museum was to provide a fitting home for this one extraordinary picture. At St Mungo's, the painting was displayed in such a way that it could be viewed from three different levels. However, it was to returned to Kelvingrove for the reopening of the Art Gallery, after it underwent renovation, in July 2006. In 2005 Christ of St John of the Cross was voted Scotland’s favourite painting in a poll conducted by The Herald newspaper, with 29% of the vote.

The Spanish government is said to have offered £80 million for the painting, but the offer was turned down.

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