The Spanish painter Salvador Dali was one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting figures of the 20th century, not just for his painting, but for his overall personality and behavior. He was often called eccentric and flamboyant, almost to the detriment of his work. However, despite his odd nature, it cannot be denied that his surrealist paintings carry significant meaning and purpose, as well as incredible aesthetics behind them.
This is no less true in his 1954 painting Crucifixion Corpus Hypercubus, which depicts a rather unique version of Christ on the Cross, combining complex quantum mathematics with a deeply spiritual event. Dali replaces a bloodied Jesus on a wooden cross with a clean, liberated Christ on a mathematically complex figure. In this paper, the varying attributes of the visual aesthetic will be explored, as well as the themes inherent in the piece, its history, the iconography behind it, and the author’s specific take on the subject matter.
In this painting, Jesus is floating above a black and white checkered floor in a strange, alien landscape. Behind him is a beach, complete with a lake and mountainous terrain beyond it, indicating land not far from the other side. This is meant to be the bay of Port Lligat. 1The sky is dark and cloudy, offering a murky brown color. Christ himself is clean, pale, with no blood or stigmata present; not even a crown of thorns. His face is turned to the right, away from the viewer, so his face is not seen.
Behind him is a net of a golden hypercube; a cross made of equilateral cubes, with one cube straight behind Christ on the back and one actually passing through him. It appears as though he is suspended by this particular cube; only the four corners not touching the rest of the hypercube are opaque, the rest of it being represented by translucent lines and a darkened color to represent where the cube should be. The entire structure, including Christ, is turned at an angle to the upper left corner of the painting so as much as possible of the hypercube can be seen.
On the other side of the painting, near the lower left corner, sitting in repose and looking up at Christ in awe, is a white-robed woman with light brown hair. Her right hand is on her right shoulder to further indicate that she is awestruck and impressed. This figure is Dali’s wife, Gala, whom he often puts in his paintings. Her presence is meant to indicate nobility, as Dali believed that the human being is the most noble creature of all. 2
Surrealism attempts to unlock the mind using myth and learn about how the mind is trapped and limited by its own trappings; Crucifixion most certainly accomplishes this through its use of imaginative cubist structures and surrealist imagery. 3 This is one of Dali’s more conventional paintings, but there are a lot of surrealistic elements present within it. The three-dimensional cross is one example of this, as well as the floating blocks, which represent the nails of the cross, pinning Christ to it. Dali’s depiction of Christ in a mathematically complex, yet perfect, structure like the hypercube represents the search for the transcendental or fourth dimension. 4 Due to the fact that the entire event seems so unrealistic and alien, it transcends time, not dating the event in any way, but instead making it completely timeless and ever-present. 5
It is often difficult to tell whether or not Dali was a “visual opportunist” in his works, merely using the hypercube to impress mathematicians with his basic knowledge of quantum mechanics, if not his full understanding. It is entirely possible, however, that he was creating a symbolic allusion to the cube and the cross, making them both thematically similar methods of exalting the supernatural – holding up Christ for all to see and behold.
Crucifixion represents a search for truth and spirituality in the cold, hard reality of life – the fact that such a prominent religious figure is trapped and confined by a mathematical concept is very interesting. At this point in his career, Dali had returned to Catholicism, the religion of his birth, but had become fascinated with nuclear mysticism – the idea of explaining the unexplainable through science and fact, of those things becoming their own myths. With this painting, Christ is not only grounded by the presence of a scientific figure like a hypercube, the hypercube itself is elevated by being associated with Christ. Both elements are brought to an equilibrium that makes them one and the same. This major theme of science and faith is expertly captured in this surrealist painting.
Crucifixion was begun in the spring of 1953, and was finished in 1954. The painting appears to be set in front of Port Lligat, a village on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea6. The painting’s function was to paint a picture that was sensational. He wanted it to be the first picture painted using classical techniques and an academic formula, but would have cubic elements as well. The metaphysics of the piece were very important to Dali, as he had announced to reporters that had gathered around him as he disembarked from a steamship in Le Havre. The sensationalism of the piece is intentional; Dali meant it to turn heads. There was no commission for this work; Dali attempted to paint this for himself and the world. The painting was exhibited in December in New York’s Carstairs Gallery, and has ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. 7
The traditional iconography that this painting is based on is the obvious images of Jesus Christ on the Cross; typically, in traditional depictions of this event, a bloodied, bearded, dark-skinned Jesus is nailed brutally to two wooden stakes by his hands and ankles, and suspended in air by the cross, which has been buried in the ground. Normal depictions in Renaissance art show this event with no lack of brutality; the image is facing straight on at the viewer with no angle, so that Jesus’ anguish can be seen in his face.
However, Dali, with his Crucifixion, combined ideas of cubism and metaphysics into the concept of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion for this painting. His Jesus is almost as clean and mathematic as the dodecahedron that he is attached to; there is no blood, no gore, no wounds; he is positively muscular as well. Instead of a dark-skinned, bearded man, the viewer gets an Adonis-like figure that does not look as though he is in pain; rather, he is exalted and elated. Instead of a wooden cross, Dali chooses to suspend Jesus above the ground on an eight sided dodecahedron, creating a fourth dimensional cube that defies all laws of physics, making it amazing to both Gala and the viewer.
It is impossible to see the face of the Jesus in Dali’s painting, leaving the viewer to come up with their own conclusion as to what Christ is going through. The presence of Gala leaves some hint as to how to feel about the situation; she is watching Christ just as the audience is, and she appears to be at peace, and awestruck by how he looks. The brilliant, golden color of the hypercube brings out the pale skin of Christ and makes him look heavenly; the cube’s color is not unlike a crown, making it almost seem a rich, beautiful event.
In conclusion, Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion is a sanitized and bloodless depiction which actually compounds the horror of the situation. 8 The fact that there is no blood and no pain on the cross, instead making it a surrealistic horror show, can often shake more traditional audiences with its strangeness and odd depiction of Christ. It is so unlike any previous depiction, yet strangely familiar, that the audience cannot help but react to it.
Crucifixion is a fine example of an artist’s attempt to connect the ideas of art, math, cosmology and religion, combining them all to transcend each of them and find a new understanding of the world that reached beyond all of them. Finite geography and shape escapes the figures in this painting, with figures and geometry that seem to go on forever, challenging the perceptions of those who view it. 9
Dali’s concepts of mathematics clash and complement the depiction of Christ so well that one can derive a number of meanings from it. It discusses themes of metaphysics and a need to understand the fantastic even in a harsh, unapologetic world; the hypercube is at once attempting to ground Christ in science and, by its own impossible nature, showcase just how wonderful He is. Crucifixion is a mathematical and artistic wonder, combining science and faith to create a depiction of Christianity’s defining event that is frightening, curious, and awe-inspiring.
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