Confronting a colossus

(Christian Courier column, March 28, 2016)

1240612_10156666105560001_2419333760593377494_n[1]The Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia, Ont., recently hosted a high-profile exhibition. The biggest draw, and I do mean BIG, was Salvador Dali’s gargantuan “Santiago El Grande” (1957). More than four metres high, the painting had to be hoisted to the second floor by means of a specially-constructed lift.

I was familiar with Dali, pioneer of Surrealism with its melting clocks and other incongruities. I could picture his stylized mustache. I vaguely recalled some offensive publicity stunts.

So imagine my surprise at the explicitly Christian theme of this titanic showstopper. St. James, patron saint of Spain, is front and centre, astride a rearing white stallion. An atomic cloud explodes from the animal’s muscular loins before morphing into jasmine petals, a haunting juxtaposition of war and peace. A smooth white pillar, like reinforcing ballast behind the lunging steed, alludes to a legendary visitation by the Virgin Mary. St. James’s sword is a crucifix, but the Jesus hanging from this cross radiates victory, his head held high without a crown of thorns, haloed by spears of light. A rhythmic pattern of shells, emblematic of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, creates coherence. Soaring geometric beams lend cathedral-like structure to the expansive vista — the universe as basilica!

My mind was racing with questions (this is Dali?) while my eyes were working overtime to take in all the details. James’s outstretched foot is meticulous in its lumpy veins and grimy toes. His horse is life-sized, realistic right to its protruding bared teeth, but there’s an angel embedded in its sinewy neck. Step back from the work and countless gold striations in the sky rearrange themselves into tiered phalanxes of a massive angelic host – a spectacular holograph.

12540766_10156666104540001_4917711980589449950_n[1]Encouraged by the docent, my friends and I lay on the floor to absorb the work’s celebrated 3-D perspective. We laughed at ourselves, but our prostration did highlight the painting’s emotional overtones of dominance and ascension.

Apparently Dali had had a middle-aged return, of sorts, to his Catholic roots. The “Santiago El Grande” had been designed as an altarpiece. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Dali’s previous ridicule of the Christian faith and his contradictory assertions that he was Catholic and agnostic, his masterpiece did not find a home within the church.

What to make of this painting? Or Dali himself, for that matter?

Humanities professor Arnold Weinstein upholds the value of the arts in his New York Times essay, “Don’t Turn Away from the Art of Life” (Feb. 23, 2016). He contends: “Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much ‘fleshing out’ happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to ‘first-personalize’ the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves.”

Weinstein’s validation of the arts resonates with me. But should a Christian “try on” what could prove false, tempting or manipulative? William S. Taylor, theologian and artist, addresses this dilemma in his book, Seeing the Mystery. Artists paint possibilities, he explains, possibilities that invite us to fill in our own perceptions. Even in their particularized portrayals of Jesus, for example, what artists actually do is help us see what we think of the Christ: “For that reason, we need have no hesitation in looking at great pictures to see what may be there, in a special and unique way, for ourselves. Even when we don’t see what the artist saw, even when we don’t necessarily like what we see, the picture may help us to think about our faith more clearly, and to understand it more sympathetically.” Taylor’s approach brings both blessing and absolution to the “first-personalization” Weinstein talks about. The Christian nurtures a sanctified imagination, a grateful orientation that boldly adds God himself to the list of “other selves” we may meet in art.

My faith was both humbled and exalted by the magnificence of the “Santiago El Grande,” a provisional shrine, a place to encounter the sublimity of Jesus Christ, the first mover and pre-eminent artist: “… the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15-17).

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