‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’ One of Best Known Images in the World

By Paul Chimera

Dalí Writer/Historian


Today’s post is not merely about a Salvador Dalí painting. It’s about what could arguably be considered one of the greatest paintings in all of art history: “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951).


There might have been a time when such a powerful assertion would have been met with skepticism. No longer. Dalí’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” is so popular, so penetrating, so beautifully painted, that few could take issue with such praise. It is, in fact, the single most beloved work of art in Scotland, where it hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow.


Dalí’s depiction of Christ is unique, for two key reasons: it gives us a view above him, as if he’s ascending; and it is completely devoid of the crown of thorns, nails, or any other suggestion of the bodily injury exacted upon the crucified Savior.


Instead, Dalí chose to show a gloriously beautiful, magnificent, perfect Christ, focusing not on the anguish of Christ’s final days in the form of man on earth, but on the hope and glory of the arisen son of God.


There are a host of anecdotes surrounding this monumental masterwork. One is the terribly sad news from the early 1960s, where a deranged man attacked the painting with a sharp rock, tearing the canvas in the lower clouds section. The painting was indeed controversial, perhaps not so much because Christ was depicted unconventionally – but because it was painted by the controversial surrealist “madman” from Spain!


The restoration of “Christ of St. John of the Cross” was mercifully successful, but unfortunately you can still detect where the tear was, depending on the lighting and from what angle you view it. I saw the iconic masterpiece in 2010 at the fabulous “Dalí: The Late Work” show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., curated by Dr. Elliott King.


It was, of course, huge in physical dimensions (approx. 7 feet high) and emotional impact. But I could discern the repaired tear, and it reminded me of how pathetic it was that such a lovely masterpiece was defiled in that way.


Speaking of emotions, I recall another anecdote about the picture. The story is that some Italian businessmen, who had known of the painting all their lives through reproductions hanging in their homes, finally traveled together to Glasgow to see “Christ” in person.


When these seasoned executives gazed up at the work, they instantly wept over the intense emotional grip it had on them.


Of the three most prominent religious masterworks Salvador Dalí painted – the other two being “Corpus Hypercubus” (“Crucifixion”) and “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” – it’s certain most would agree that “Christ of St. John of the Cross” is the most universally known.


I honestly believe that if Dalí had painted no other picture but this one, he would still have been accorded a significant place in the history of art.