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)