>A Surrealist Eucharist

>Tomorrow is The Courtier’s birthday, and as such he is taking a day off from work. As this may incline him to not blog, either, depending on how late he chooses to get up in the morning, it seems appropriate to mark in advance the birthday he shares with another crazy but far more important Catalan, i.e. the great surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. So much has been written about Dalí that it is more reasonable to focus on one of his works, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper”, painted in 1955 and currently in the collection of The National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C.

Dalí is an artist who cannot be properly understood without understanding the lands from which he sprung. In any artist’s work there is a method, even in the seeming madness, which often has to do with the environment in which the artist was raised. In the same way that a closer inspection of the work of an artist like Marc Chagall requires an acknowledgment of his Eastern European Jewish roots, Dalí only becomes more comprehensible in his apparent strangeness if the Catalan landscape and culture are given some consideration by the viewer.

In the case of Dalí’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper”, the landscape which appears in the background is often referred to as a lake, but this is incorrect. It is almost certainly a spot along the Costa Brava, Catalonia’s “Wild Coast” where Dalí lived for much of his life, and I suspect it may even be an interpretation of the Illes Medes or “Medes Islands”, located near the fishermens’ village/resort town of L’Estartit. The islands are no longer inhabited, having been turned into a nature preserve, but they were used as a necropolis by the Greeks and the early Celto-Iberians, and later as a stronghold of the Knights Templar, as well as a lair of pirates, so a number of legends grew up around them.

The scene is set in a structure located on the Catalan shore. Though the design of the building itself is unusual – it was probably used by some post-conciliar architects as a regrettable model for church building – it is most likely a dodecahedron. One might be tempted to think of this as The New Jerusalem described in Revelation, except for the fact that St. John describes the 12-gated city as being square in form.

Considering the title of the painting, this is not Dalí’s vision of the Last Supper, the Passover night when Christ instituted the Eucharist. The qualification of the title as “Sacrament” means this is not a representation of a particular point in history. The participants on either side of Christ look more like monks than Jewish fishermen and the like. It is more likely that the 12 men surrounding the table are not the Apostles per se, but rather representations of the important number 12: 12 Apostles, 12 Tribes of Israel, etc. As an obsessive-compulsive, Dalí loved to focus on the importance of numbers, and here he has done so in spades.

Moreover, Jesus is not physically present in the painting in the same way that the men around the table are. He is something else, existing simultaneously at the same time as the 12 men bowed in prayer, and yet existing outside of their time. As mortal beings, humans exist on a timeline, in that we have a starting point; God does not have a starting point. There is only one Sacrifice made by Christ at Calvary, since He died once for all. So at each celebration of the mass we are made present in a transcendent way at Calvary, even though we are attending mass on a fixed date on a linear timeline.

As a surrealist fascinated by concepts of time and space, and a man who returned to the Catholic Church in the 1940’s, Dalí more than other surrealists would have thought about the Sacrament and been drawn to reflect on it in an unusual, visual way. He appears to be trying to answer the question of how Jesus, suffering and dying in 1st century Palestine, can be present in the Eucharist here and now as well. Inevitably an attempt to reach a true understanding of this mystery in the form of paint will fail just as ink on a page inevitably does. Yet no matter how ultimately unsuccessful the book or the painting, such reflections can help the individual to a deeper understanding of Christ.

Truth be told, although this painting has some beautiful passages in it, it is not a favorite of mine. Despite its initial popularity at the National Gallery when it was first displayed there in the 1950’s, it eventually found its way into a stairwell connecting the East and West Buildings, and now is located at the end of a hallway on the Mezzanine Level of the East Building, next to a bank of elevators. It seems the curators at the museum are a little embarrassed by it (and yet not embarrassed by the pointless piles of rocks they have on display in the atrium.) However, the reader is invited to track down the painting and examine it for himself, and see whether the work does not make him pause and engage in some deeper consideration of the Eucharist as well.

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