The American public loves the later paintings of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), the Spanish artist who was a leader of the surrealist movement in the 1920s and 1930s but who announced his return to the Catholic faith and a classical style of painting in 1942. 

But most art critics and a number of theologians have dismissed Dalí’s later work. Some judged his Catholicism as insincere, while others thought Dalí lost his creative spark when he rejected the abstraction of modern art. 

Thanks to the exhibit “Dalí: The Late Work,” which runs through Jan. 9 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, we can now see Dalí’s later works as continuing the traits that made him such a compelling artist: his devotion to “good” painting (meaning, for him, the ability to accurately reproduce reality in pigments), and his fascination with the intersection of science and mathematics with the subconscious mind. 

Curator Elliott King told Our Sunday Visitor that Dalí, who was raised Catholic by his mother during his youth in Spain’s Catalan region, never completely left the faith, even though all the surrealists denounced the Church in the 1920s. His first painting to win a prize was a “Basket of Bread,” revealing a lifelong interest in the iconography of bread and its importance in the miracle of the Eucharist. 

And thanks to theologian Michael Anthony Novak’s analysis of the “Sacrament of the Last Supper” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., we can also appreciate Dalí’s effort to interpret traditional religious subject matter in a way that expresses both contemporary reality and the central mystery of the Catholic faith. 

Dalí will always be best known for the works of his surrealist period, especially “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) in which soft clocks drip over a dream landscape, suggesting the theory of relativity and the discoveries of Freudian psychology. This famous picture, owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, will be seen at the Atlanta show beginning Nov. 16, as a counterpoint to the works created between 1940 and 1983. 

‘Nuclear mysticism’ 

The High Museum exhibit opens with a large gallery devoted to Dalí’s Catholic paintings, titled “Nuclear Mysticism.” Curator King writes that Dalí “became captivated with nuclear physics. For the first time, physics was providing proof for the existence of God, he said, and it was now up to artists to integrate this knowledge into the great artistic tradition. He called this blend of religion and physics ‘nuclear mysticism,’ and it directed his art through the 1950s.” 

Two of his great religious compositions have been loaned to Atlanta: the “Christ of St. John of the Cross” of 1950, and the “Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina,” painted in 1952 to celebrate the newly proclaimed dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin, and exhibited publicly for the first time since 1959. They are joined by the largest version of his “Madonna of Port Lligat,” in a Japanese collection, and the 14-foot altarpiece, originally intended for the Escorial Palace in Spain, of “Santiago El Grande,” depicting the patron of Spain, St. James. This dazzling canvas belongs to the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada, and has not been seen in the United States since its premiere in 1957. 

Dalí’s “Crucifixion of St. John of the Cross” is known for “its distinctively foreshortened Christ seen from above — a perspective based on a 16th-century drawing by St. John of the Cross himself, preserved in the Convent of Avila,” King said. The picture was voted the most popular painting in Scotland in a 2007 poll. 

A Carmelite father had shown him the drawing, and Dalí reported that he saw Christ in a dream in the same position, and that a voice had told him, “Dalí, you must paint this Christ.”

Not up for loan 

Two of Dalí’s celebrated religious works did not travel to Atlanta because they were given to their respective museums by the banker-collector Chester Dale on condition they could never be loaned. 

New York’s Metropolitan Museum owns the more than 6-foot-tall canvas “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus)” of 1954. 

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the “Sacrament of the Last Supper” now hangs in an obscure corner of the mezzanine of the East Building near an elevator, opposite the main exhibition gallery — far from the art both of Dalí’s contemporaries and of the Old Masters he emulated. 

Yet the “Sacrament of the Last Supper” was the most popular painting in the National Gallery as soon as it arrived there in 1956, and both pictures are staples in college-dorm poster sales every fall. 

A profile of Chester Dale in The New Yorker magazine on Oct. 25, 1958, quotes the banker: “I gave the Dalí ‘Crucifixion’ to the Metropolitan, and I inspired his ‘Last Supper.’ After the ‘Crucifixion’ I told him he had to do one more religious picture — ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper.’ He didn’t do anything else for a whole year.’” 

“I didn’t commission it, but I reserved the first look at it, and I bought it on sight,” Dale boasted, adding that he had challenged Dalí to match the work of the Renaissance master Tintoretto.

Sacrament, not narrative 

Dalí’s imposing canvas of the Sacrament depicts a clean-shaven Christ surrounded by two groups of six communing votaries at a long table. The 12 men are anonymous; to left and right they are mirror images of each other, and their faces are hidden. The semitransparent Christ emerges from a sea surrounded by mountains; little boats are visible through his body. Before him is a beaker of wine, and at the front of the table, two broken halves of a bread loaf. Christ gestures toward himself with his left hand; with his right hand he points up to a gigantic, faceless male torso with outstretched arms. 

A huge dodecahedron, the regular solid described by Plato as embodying the universe, encloses the space. 

Marquette University’s Novak analyzed this painting in a paper presented to a symposium at the University of Notre Dame in 2004. He noted that two important Protestant theologians, Francis Schaeffer and Paul Tillich, had written about the picture, but he said both misunderstood it. They made the understandable error of thinking that it was a picture of the Last Supper — the historical scene of Christ’s Passover meal with his apostles. 

Rather, Dalí (as the title of the picture implies) portrayed the Sacrament of the Eucharist in which the consecrated bread and wine become the Redeemer’s Body and Blood.  

Novak wrote, “Dalí’s true intention, which he has masterfully accomplished on this canvas, is to remind us of what is occurring in every celebration of this mystery of bread and wine: that the worship here on earth makes present the realities of worship in heaven.” 

The greatest happiness 

In a paragraph in the National Gallery’s curatorial file (but missing from all published accounts), Dalí wrote of this painting: “The first holy Communion on earth is conceived as a sacred rite of the greatest happiness for humanity. This rite is expressed with plastic means and not with literary ones. My ambition was to incorporate to [17th-century painter Francisco] Zurbaran’s mystical realism the experimental creativeness of modern painting in my desire to make it classic.” 

An undated gallery handout in the same file alludes to an apparent surrealistic double image in the long hair of the Savior on the left side of his head that looks like the silhouette of a perching bird. If so, this could allude to the Holy Spirit.  

The headless torso, which has mystified critics and theologians alike, completes the Trinity as God the Father. 

Novak has a straightforward explanation of this figure. The two gestures of Jesus come from an account in the Gospel of John on the night of the Last Supper. When Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As portrayed by Dalí, Christ points to “me” with his left hand and above to the “Father” with his right. 

Novak concludes: “It is heaven that is present; heaven is the space in which the event we see in the painting is taking place. It is the figure of the Father, then, who fills both heaven and earth as they are presented in this painting, with His outstretched arms taking in the whole of space.” 

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.