Salvador Dali's "The Ascension of Christ."
A friend and I were discussing this painting last night, and this morning I wrote down some thoughts that might interest a few of you. The question this painting evokes immediately, of course, is in regard to the hands of the Christ. Why would they be shown claw-like, as if he were in great pain?
I have a theory about this, though I'm not sure I'm right. If you have any thoughts on the matter, you can let me know what you think.
Dali had a lifelong interest in physics, quantum mechanics, etc. He also did some early work on measuring the torment of the martyred saint (in "L'Amic de les Arts"). I think we might see a combination of those elements here.
This painting was created in 1958, almost ten years after the atomic explosions of 1945 had a deep impact on Dali. He wrote, "Since that time, the atom has become my favourite subject of reflection. Many of the landscapes painted over this period express the great fear I felt at the news of that explosion. I was applying my paranoiac-critical method to the exploration of that world. I want to see and understand the power and hidden laws of things so as to gain control over them. In order to penetrate into the marrow of reality I have the genial intuition of having an extraordinary weapon available to me -- mysticism, the deep intuition of what is, an immediate communion with the whole, absolute vision through the grace of truth, by divine grace."
In the early 1950's, Dali began to synthesize his interest in nuclear fission/fusion with mysticism. He presented a talk titled "Why I was sacrilegious, why I am mystical," which described his integration into the Spanish mystics.
His paintings from this era interpreted religious themes through atomic discoveries that his peers were making. For example, in 1952, he wrote an article called "Reconstitution of the glorious body in the sky," arguing for the assumption of Mary in light of atomic physics.
I could be wrong, but when I first saw this painting, I noticed immediately that there were no marks of the crucifixion on the resurrected body of Christ. Though some scholars believe the nails were hammered through the ankles instead of the feet, the smoothness Dali chooses for the feet of a traveling, rural man is shocking.
Is this a post-resurrection Christ? His arms are clean of scars. There is no spear mark in his side. There are no healed stripes from a whip. His skin is hairless and perfect. This shouts for notice.
In contrast, the outer world Dali chooses for the Ascension is reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust. Jesus is lifting off a world of black seas and fire, but instead of moving upward, he seems to be moving into a different dimension. Beyond this, he seems to be moving into the corona of a single atom. ("In Christ all things hold together?")
At first I was baffled that Dali's wife's face seemed to be above him. In almost every Ascension painting, Christ rises above mortals into the heavenlies. How could he dare to put a human above a God?
But this pushed me deeper into the idea that Jesus is not rising upward so much as inward. He is passing into and not just above. (See how he goes into the center of the painting, instead of to the top?) This is not the typical dimensionality to which we are accustomed, but a transcendence of the perceptible world, which is a profound spiritual statement instead of just a physical one.
This leads to my theory on his hands. Christ is in the crucifixion pose here. Look at most paintings of the Ascension; they never look like this. Christ is typically in a more contrapposto stance when rising to glory.
Here his feet are aligned together as they are on the cross. His hands are more reminiscent of agony than ecstasy. And he is not wearing traditional Ascension clothing, but the loincloth typical of his Passion paintings. Why would Dali do this?
To me, all of this comes together to make a mighty statement about the healing offered by Christ by his death... A death that seeps into the very fabric of the universe. This feels more like an Ascension painting made mid-Crucifixion.
Why would those two events be combined?Perhaps Dali wanted us to see that this is not a cheap, easy resurrection (with flowers and butterflies), but a gift offered through cosmic agony, so that we might follow Him through this portal that turns everything inside out. (By his agony, we are healed.)
And as the woman looks on, to follow, she would almost have to twist and be pulled by the current He is creating. Imagine turning a long tube of fabric inside out... this is the motion. If this is difficult to imagine, think of Christ moving in the direction that the painting suggests he is moving already, and that all that is subject to the destruction man has brought to this planet would be pulled along behind him into a new atomic center.