Fr Senan Furlong OSB
Tom Honeyman, a medical doctor and art connoisseur, was appointed Director of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glascow in 1939. Thirteen years later, there was uproar when he purchased a religious painting for the gallery, paying £8,200 for it – a sum considered in 1952 to be an outrageous waste of hard-earned taxpayers’ money. The painting in
question was Christ of St John of the Cross. The artist was the Catalan surrealist, Salvador Dalí. Opinions and tastes change over time, and today the work is perhaps the most celebrated and reproduced religious painting of the 20th century. A poll conducted in 2006 ranked it Scotland’s favourite painting, and an offer of £80 million by the Spanish government was turned down.
Dalí based his painting on a pen and ink sketch of the crucified Christ by the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross. The painting depicts Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a tranquil dawn-lit bay complete with a boat and fishermen. What is unusual is the dramatically different interpretation that Dalí gave the crucified
Christ from the Spanish mystic. For St John of the Cross, the crucified Christ was a focus for compassion, a tortured and murdered man. Dalí aimed instead for an image of perfection and transcendence — there’s no blood, no nails, no crown of thorns. St John’s drawing is frenetic, a vision of the agonizing death on the cross. Dalí’s painting is serene,
a celebration of life and the triumph over death.
Today’s readings for the Solemnity of Christ the King present us with these two seemingly opposite views. The passage from the letter to the Colossians is a magnificent hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Cosmic Christ. The battle has been won and a great exchange has been effected. God has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, who is the foundational unity holding all things in being. This is Dalí’s inspiring vision: Christ, ‘the nucleus of the atom’, the very unity of the universe.
It is ironic that on this day when we are called to reflect on the power and authority of our infinite God, the gospel passage takes us to the scene of the crucifixion. This form of punishment didn’t just kill a person. It dehumanised, degraded and debased. And here is our King, not ruling from a majestic throne but hanging from a cross, too weak to save himself from death. His crown is a crown of thorns. He has no armies at his command.
The only soldiers in attendance are his executioners. He is an appalling sight, without beauty or majesty, a thing despised and rejected. This is the vision contemplated by St John of the Cross. Can he who is mocked as ‘King of the Jews’ be the King of the Universe? Can the
apparent weakness of this dying man be the power of God giving new life to the world? Both St John of the Cross and Dalí have us view Christ and the cross directly from above. It is a heavenly perspective; it is that of God the Father, in the one case looking down on the sacrifice of his Son, in the other embracing and blessing everything beneath. Both breath the Resurrection. That doesn’t take away from the horror of Jesus giving himself up to death, but it does show that in this ultimate solidarity with humankind, God reveals himself as the God of love, who opens up hope and a future through the most negative side of history.
And what about us? Jesus hangs on the cross between two criminals. One mocks while the other owns his wrongdoing and looks to Jesus. In his powerlessness and pain, his eyes are opened and he sees right beside him the fount of mercy, forgiveness and redemption. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His plea acknowledges that Jesus is King. He sees that salvation is to be with Jesus. On this Solemnity of Christ the King may we discover in this crucified, powerless, thorn-crowned King, the only person who can truly say, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”