Dali, The Dominican, and Forgotten Faith

​After the March for Life last Friday, I rushed over to the National Gallery of Art to meet up with a friend, who wanted a quick tour of some of the highlights of the NGA’s collection. When you’ve only got about 45 minutes to “do” a vast museum before the place closes, you’ve got to be somewhat strategic with your choices. Fortunately, when I asked the gentleman in question whether there was a particular area of art that he was interested in, he immediately said “Italian Renaissance”, and away we went.

At the end of our very speedy tour however, which not only encompassed the Italians but also some Spanish, French, and Dutch Baroque, I made a point of finishing up at “The Sacrament of The Last Supper” (1955) by Salvador Dalí, which at the time it was acquired was the most popular painting in the entire National Gallery. It’s a piece I’ve been familiar with all my life, since a reproduction of it hung in our playroom at home. Despite its initial fame, today Dalí’s large, mystical work hangs in a basement hallway, located on the way to the museum gift shop, where hundreds of people hurry past it every day without even looking at it.

Dalí’s return to the Catholic faith in middle age generated some of his most interesting works, including not only the NGA’s “Sacrament” but the magnificent “Madonna of Port Lligat” (1949), now at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and what is arguably his most popular painting, the massive “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951) in the Kelingrove Gallery in Glasgow. As is the case with all of the artist’s work, the National Gallery’s picture normally requires a bit of explanation, since it isn’t actually a representation of the Last Supper in the way that we understand that term. For reasons of space, I’m not going to attempt that here.

Instead, I’d like to point the reader to the work of an artist you’re probably unfamiliar with, but in whose work I think you’ll see some earlier echoes of what Dalí was trying to do, centuries later. A fellow Spaniard who lived centuries before Dalí, he too came to a deeper religious faith in the middle of his life. In his case, it led him straight into the Order of Preachers, i.e., the Dominicans.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) was a painter from the Spanish province of Castile, who trained in Italy for a number of years before returning to work in Spain. When I was in Madrid a few weeks ago, I had the chance to take in one of his greatest works, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which was painted between 1612-1614 for the Dominican priory church of St. Peter Martyr in Toledo. Interestingly, during the course of executing this altarpiece, Maíno decided to join the Dominicans himself. As a result, he is more commonly referred to as “Fray Maíno”, in reference to his becoming a Dominican friar, much as the Italian Renaissance artist “Fra Angelico” is also commonly known by his Dominican friar name.

For a work that was painted over 400 years ago, there is something strikingly modern about Maíno’s altarpiece. Notice the almost photographic renderings of the gourd and puppy in the foreground, for example, or how the figures look like ordinary people, rather than idealized statues come to life. I particularly love the unusual detail of St. Joseph, on the right-hand side of the picture, who is holding and kissing the Baby Jesus’ arm, while the Child and His Mother smile at each other. There is a wonderful immediacy in the way that Maíno brings us into this scene, as a participant in something that is almost more real than real.

While Dalí’s “Sacrament” is a very different picture, more monumental and symmetrical, there are definite parallels with Fra Maíno’s style. The bread and wine on the table for example, and indeed the folds of the tablecloth itself are, like the details in Maíno’s altarpiece, beyond real. You could almost reach out and pick up one of the pieces of the broken loaf of bread in the foreground. And in fact, that’s exactly what you’re being invited to do: there’s a space right in front, across from Christ, for the viewer to come to the table.

Similarly, while the monks bent in prayer around the table are physical types, who mirror each other on either side of Christ, as in Maíno’s work there is no question that they are taken from studies of real individuals. We cannot see their faces, but we do see their hair, and what incredible attention to detail in the growth and coloring of different types of human hair we can see among these ordinary men. It is fascinating to think that, in the 17th century, Maíno was looking at the human figure in a way that later, through the advent of photography and the exploration of Surrealism, Dalí was able to resume with the same purpose: to express his Christian faith.

Perhaps the reason why the National Gallery has banished this painting to a basement is because we live in a time when elites are embarrassed both by faith and by those who have it. Ancient paintings and sculptures looted from churches and monasteries are considered acceptable acquisitions for museums because they represent the past, rather than the present or the future. Those who openly despise or who are indifferent to Christianity do not want to see Modern or Contemporary paintings or sculptures that celebrate Christian belief: rather, they want to see art that skewers it. The fact that such an overtly Catholic work of art even made it into a major museum is a testament to the enormous popularity of the artist, rather than an appreciation of this particular subject matter.

I can certainly understand why this piece is not to everyone’s taste. Yet for those willing to take the time to look at and try to understand what is going on in this painting, I believe there are many worthwhile things to discover here, both in terms of a deeper understanding of Christianity, as well as a greater appreciation of the history of art. Among these is a realization that, for all of its apparent strangeness, Dalí’s work does not exist in a vacuum.

Celebrating “The Feasts” with Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina’s new book, “The Feasts”. Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]

In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year.  Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths.  With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God.  Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.

In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be.  Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people.  In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events.  Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.

Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ.  Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost.  Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism.  Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.

Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being.  Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes.  His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is.  Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history.  They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally.  This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas.  Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.

Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world.  At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about.  To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.

Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other.  Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man.  Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter.  In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist.  Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”

As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way.  “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions.  They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.

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GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.

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