One of Salvador Dali’s most iconic works, well-loved by many Catholics (including yours truly) and non-Catholics alike, is his massive painting called the “Christ of St. John of the Cross”. The nearly seven-foot tall oil on canvas was painted in 1951. Thematically it is related to a number of other metaphysical-cosmological religious paintings by the Catalan artist, including his “Madonna of Port Lligat” now in Milwaukee, and his “Sacrament of the Last Supper” now here in Washington, D.C.
The original idea for this painting came from a sketch in the notebooks of the Spanish Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross, which are still preserved in the town of Avila. St. John had a vision of Christ Crucified, but from a perspective hovering above the cross rather than below or directly in front of it, as the Crucifixion is almost always portrayed, and tried to sketch what he had seen. Dali saw this drawing about 1950 and was fascinated by it, and had a recurring dream about portraying it in oils.
When he did so, at the foot of the painting, almost as a predella panel, Dali portrayed fishermen on the sea of Galilee. Of course, standing in for the Galilee is the Costa Brava in Catalonia, where Dali lived and which he loved and painted many times. For me, the painting is also related in its coloring, lighting, and stark and very Iberian viewpoint to Velazquez’ “Christ Crucified” in the Prado, with which Dali was no doubt very familiar.
The “Christ of St. John of the Cross” went on show at the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow in 1952, and was a great source of controversy and debate. This was only heightened when Glasgow bought the painting and the intellectual property rights along with it, for the then-massive sum of 8,200 pounds sterling: an unusually high price in those days for a contemporary work. Even today, some people continue to hate and deride it, but I have always found it to be a meditative and moving piece.
Over the years the painting has only continued to grow in popularity, and the initial investment by the Glasgow city fathers has paid off many, many times since 1952 as a result of increased tourism, sales and licensing of reproductions of the piece, etc. Now the BBC is reporting that due to repeated copyright violations, Glasgow has retained intellectual property lawyers to crack down on unlicensed use of the image, particularly on consumer items. Rather than risk their wrath and reproduce it here, I’ve provided the link to the BBC article so that you can judge for yourself whether this piece is worth all of the fuss.