Each week during Lent a member of our congregation has looked at a piece of religious art and shared some thoughts. On this Maundy Thursday, Alice Schultze examines Dali’s famous painting, ending with a poem.
By Alice Schultze
This is a bit strange, but, when I was searching for a painting to talk about, a voice inside me said, “check out Dali.” I was looking at medieval paintings at the time and so had to skip over a few centuries but once I saw Dali’s interpretation of the Last Supper it took hold of me.
This painting is so full of beauty and symbolism and mysticism and questions!
So, first a bit on Salvador Dali, best known as a leader of the symbolist movement in art and literature as well as for his flamboyant handlebar mustache. Dali was born in Spain in 1904. His mother was a devout Catholic, his father was an atheist. Dali was named Salvador after his brother Salvador, who died at 3 years old, and was told he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali had nothing to do with religion for years and years but returned with a passion – or perhaps was converted with a passion – to Catholicism in the early 1940’s. Pertinent to this painting is his affair with and marriage to Gala, a Russian woman 11 years his senior, married at the time he met her to the poet Paul Eluard.
The painting: Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” an oil on canvas, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. According to Wikipedia (!), it’s the most popular piece there.
The Last Supper was painted in 1955 and from what I read was considered by some critics to be a mediocre work on an overdone topic (there are no footnotes to this claim). Many previous artists had interpreted the Last Supper, perhaps most notably Leonardo Da Vinci, who has the apostles seemingly gesticulating and talking loudly around a quiet Jesus. To the right of Jesus is a figure who some say is Mary Magdalene and others say is the apostle John in need of a haircut.
What the paintings have in common is a degree of controversy. In this sense, it reminds me of the church as a whole. What, a woman should not be a priest, should not serve communion?! We have no idea what the person in the church up the block thinks or even what the person sitting next to us thinks, and for sure we will have controversy when we get to talk about what sort of a pastor we, at Esperanza, would like to have.
What I see most in the painting is transcendence. The scene is ethereal, and it is as if Jesus is so light and transparent he will soon float away. Or perhaps he will soon be raised away. Look at the figure above him. Look at the hand of Jesus pointing upward. Is this where he says he’ll go to the Father? Is the figure above him Jesus himself ascending to heaven? Or is it a figure of God the Father? Jesus had said anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Note, there is no face on the figure. Moses was told if you look upon God’s face you will die.
But look at Jesus’ face! He is effeminate and blond. It is unlikely Jesus was blond and some say the face is that of Dali’s love and muse, Gala. In any case, it speaks to and repeats the femininity of the Mary Magdalene/ John the Apostle figure in the Da Vinci painting. Dali had said he wished to be another Da Vinci.
The room where the Last Supper takes place is certainly not a closed door upper room the way we read about it in the Gospels. It’s an open, airy space filled with the light of Jesus, overlooking the sea, which is said to be the view from Dali’s home on the coast of Spain. The shape of the room is said to be derived from a Pythagorean concept having to do with pentagons – noted but far beyond my ability to understand.
What I love are the apostles. They are nameless, unidentified, cloaked and reverent. There are twelve of them, but their lack of specificity makes them fluid. They could be any 12 people. They could be male or female. They could be you or me.
Another thing I love is the starkness of the meal. The eye focuses on the two apostles sitting close to us, then is brought into the bread – broken in two – then to the wine, and from there to Jesus.
This last supper is not a feast, but it’s more than a feast. It’s a sacrament. It leaves no doubt that everything there and to come is about Jesus.
….and what do you make of the little boat?
OUR LAST SUPPER
I remember well our last meal together,
The restaurant the wine, where we drank in
Tenderness and love.
We were happy,
Walking back to the hotel
As if saying
It’s been a good run.
As if saying,
This has been our own