Metaphysical and Transcendent Cubism

Corpus Hypercubus (Crucifixion), Salvador Dalí, 1954


Salvador Dalí’s inspiration for Corpus Hypercubus came from his change in artistic style during the 1940s and 1950s. Around that time, his interest in surrealism diminished and he became fascinated with nuclear science, feeling that “thenceforth, the atom was [his] favorite food for thought.” His interest grew from the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II which left a lasting impression on him. In his 1951 essay Mystical Manifesto, he introduced an art theory he called “nuclear mysticism” that combined Dalí’s interests in Catholicism, mathematics, science, and Catalan culture in an effort to reestablish Classical values and techniques, which he extensively utilizes in Corpus Hypercubus. That same year, to promote nuclear mysticism and explain the “return to spiritual classicism movement” in modern art, he traveled throughout the United States giving lectures. Before painting Corpus Hypercubus, Dalí announced his intention to portray an exploding Christ using both classical painting techniques along with the motif of the cube and he declared that “this painting will be the great metaphysical work of [his] summer.” Juan de Herrera’s Treatise on Cubic Forms was particularly influential to Dalí.

Corpus Hypercubus is composed of oil on canvas, and its dimensions are 76.5 x 43.75 inches. Consistent with his theory of “nuclear mysticism”, Dalí uses classical elements along with ideas inspired by math, science, etc. Some noticeably classic features are the drapery of the clothing and the Caravagesque lighting that theatrically envelops Christ, though like his 1951 painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Corpus Hypercubus takes the traditional Biblical scene of Christ’s Crucifixion and almost completely reinvents it. While he did attempt to distance himself from the Surrealist movement after his development of “nuclear mysticism”, Dalí still incorporates dream-like features consistent with his earlier surrealist work in Corpus Hypercubus, such as the levitating Christ and the giant chessboard below. Jesus’ face is turned away from the viewer, making it completely obscured. The crown of thorns is missing from Christ’s head as are the nails from his hands and feet, leaving his body completely devoid of the wounds often closely associate with the Crucifixion. With Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Dalí did the same in order to leave only the “metaphysical beauty of Christ-God”. Dalí sets the painting in front of the bay of Port Lligat in Catalonia, Dalí’s home, which is also the setting of other paintings of his including The Madonna of Port Lligat, The Sacrament of the Last Supper, and Christ of Saint John of the Cross. One’s eyes are quickly drawn to the knees of Christ which have a grotesque exaggeration of realism detail. If one observes the original painting closely, 5 different images of Gala appear in Christ’s right knee and 5 different images of Salvador appear in his left; the most prominent two being Gala’s back/neck/back of head with right arm extended upward and Salvador’s face replete with trademark up swept mustache. Additional knee images translate extremely poorly to reproductions/prints.

The most striking change Dalí makes from nearly every other crucifixion painting concerns the cross. Instead of painting Christ on a wooden cross, Dalí depicts him upon the net of a hypercube, also known as a tesseract. The unfolding of a tesseract into eight cubes is analogous to unfolding the sides of a cube into six squares. The use of a hypercube for the cross has been interpreted as a geometric symbol for the transcendental nature of God. Just as God exists in a space that is incomprehensible to humans, the hypercube exists in four spatial dimensions, which is equally inaccessible to the mind. The net of the hypercube is a three-dimensional representation of it, similar to how Christ is a human form of God that is more relatable to people. The word “corpus” in the title can refer both to the body of Christ and to geometric figures, reinforcing the link Dalí makes between religion and mathematics and science. Christ’s levitation above the Earth could symbolize His rise above Earthly desire and suffering. The motif of the cube is present elsewhere: Gala is standing on one and the chessboard is made up of squares.

On the bottom left of the painting, Dalí painted his wife Gala as Mary Magdalene looking up at Jesus. Dalí thought of her as the “perfect union of the development of the hypercubic octahedron on the human level of the cube”. He used her as a model because “the most noble beings were painted by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán. [He] only [approaches] nobility when painting Gala, and nobility can only be inspired by the human being.”

Upon completing Corpus Hypercubus, Dalí described his work as “metaphysical, transcendent cubism.” The union of Christ and the tesseract reflects Dalí’s opinion that the seemingly separate and incompatible concepts of science and religion can in fact coexist, which has been lauded by viewers and has been widely considered one of Dalí’s masterworks. A reproduction of the painting is mentioned in J. G. Ballard‘s 1969 surrealist novel, The Atrocity Exhibition.

Immortalizing Mortality and the Ages of Life

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

William Shakespeare


Andy Warhol, Skulls, 1976-1977



Andy Warhol had bought a skull at a flea market in Paris, France, around 1975 and when he came back to New York, started the Skulls series. Warhol was encouraged to developing the series by his business manager Fred Hughes who reminded him that artist such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Pablo Picasso had used that object with great expressive effect.

In this work of art, supposedly by chance, the shadow did get the shape of a baby’s head, and after Warhol noticed that coincidence, he compared that paintings as a representation of the ages of life.

Principal to Andy Warhol’s reputation as the most significant and influential visual artist of the later Twentieth Century is his obsession with the iconic and with death, and his revolution in image repetition. More than any others, these are the features that inspired his artistic canon and thereby changed western visual culture. It is difficult to conceive of a more concentrated manifestation of these characteristics than the present work: ten individually stunning canvases that repeatedly represent the icon of the skull; the literal multiplication of death.