The Most Enduring Vision of the Crucifixion

Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Salvador Dalí, 1951

 
 

Christ of Saint John of the Cross is a painting by Salvador Dalí made in 1951. It depicts Jesus Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. Although it is a depiction of the crucifixion, it is devoid of nails, blood, and a crown of thorns, because, according to Dalí, he was convinced by a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ. Also in a dream, the importance of depicting Christ in the extreme angle evident in the painting was revealed to him.

 
 

Study for Christ of Saint John of the Cross, also from 1951

 
 

Crucifixion sketch attributed to St. John of the Cross, XVI century

 
 

The painting is known as the “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”, because its design is based on a drawing by the 16th-century Spanish friar John of the Cross. The composition of Christ is also based on a triangle and circle (the triangle is formed by Christ’s arms; the circle is formed by Christ’s head). The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity, and the circle may be an allusion to Platonic thought. The circle represents Unity: all things do exist in the “three” but in the four, merry they be.

 
 

 
 

In 2009 the art critic, Jonathan Jones (from The Guardian), described it as “kitsch and lurid,” but noted that the painting was “for better or worse, probably the most enduring vision of the crucifixion painted in the 20th century.”

In BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives, the poet John Cooper Clarke described this image as being utterly different from any other image of the crucifixion, as the angle of view describes the hanging pain of this method of execution, whilst hiding the ordinarily clichéd facial expressions normally seen on such images.

 
 

Other Dali’s sources of inspiration:

 
 

Study for The Surrender of Breda, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, circa 1635

 
 

Peasants Before Their House, Louis Le Nain, circa 1642

 
 

Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross (Detail)

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Dreams Are Themselves Dreams

La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) is a Spanish-language play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. First published in 1635 (or possibly early in 1636), it is a philosophical allegory regarding the human situation and the mystery of life. The play has been described as “the supreme example of Spanish Golden Age drama”.

The story focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream.

The play’s central theme is the conflict between free will and fate. It remains one of Calderón’s best-known and most studied works. Other themes include dreams vs. reality and the conflict between father and son. The play has been adapted for other stage works, in film and as a novel.

 
 

Segismundo’s reflections
(close of Act II)

We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years,
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams are themselves a dream*.

Calderón de la  Barca

 
 

Calderon de la Barca

 
 

The Writer’s Whim

 
 

Vision of Paradise

 
 

Knight with Helmet and Butterflies

 
 

Study for a Dream

 
 

Segismundo

 
 

Segismundo in Chains

 
 

Engravings by Salvador Dalí, circa 1975

 
 

*Focusing on Segismundo’s line, “Y los sueños, sueños son”, a more accurate English translation, better representing Calderón’s poetic and philosophical intent, may be given as: “And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams”, implying and underscoring the ephemeral nature of human life and physical existence.