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.

The Courtier In Aleteia: On The Infant Jesus Of Prague

My latest piece for Aleteia is a reflection on the Infant Jesus of Prague, the famous devotional object from Spain that ended up in Bohemia during the Renaissance. I had never been particularly interested in this representation of the Christ Child until several years ago, when I turned to Him at a very difficult moment in my life. As always, my thanks to Elizabeth Scalia and her staff at Aleteia for publishing my scribblings.

Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.