By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dalí Historian
I return now and again to my favorite Salvador Dalí painting, Santiago El Grande, and today I do so after seeing a recent news story about the painting’s permanent home – the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The story focused – as most stories about the Beaverbrook invariably do – on its undisputed star of the show: Dalí’s immense and majestic Santiago El Grande, or St. James the Great.
Specifically, the writer noted something that’s been pointed out many times before: the work is best viewed, as Dalí intended things, from a very low angle. In fact, from the point of view of positioning oneself lying flat on one’s back, directly under the painting, feet flat to the floor!
It’s said that the horse appears to be jumping right off the canvas when such a peculiar vantage point is taken.
Many have done this, and yet I myself – who has been in love with this painting for so many years – missed my opportunity when I saw Santiago for my first, and only time, in the Dalí: The Late Work exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. in 2010.
It’s my understanding that Santiago El Grande was originally envisioned as an altarpiece, and that it therefore was intended to be hung high and viewed from a low angle (though certainly not from one lying beneath it).
While I haven’t yet experienced the illusion of the horse riding out of the canvas, there is another bit of three-dimensionality inherent in this remarkable picture: the foot of St. James himself. The more you stare at it, the greater sense you get that it’s coming right out at you! A stark reminder of the walks the apostles made with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Here are some disparate facts about this masterpiece that you may not have known:
- St. James was the patron saint of Spain and of pilgrims.
- His remains are said to be buried in Santiago de Compostela
- One internet site notes that “during the celebrated battle of Clavijo, St. James suddenly appeared on a milk-white charger, waving aloft a white standard, and leading the Christians to victory.”
- St. James is widely recognized as the first apostle to be martyred.
- The scallop shell is the recognized symbol of all pilgrims on the Camino, as it’s found on the shores of Galicia
- When returning to their own countries, pilgrims displayed the scallop shell in their hats to show they had carried out their pious intentions.
- St. James is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in Spain – yet another reason he’s their patron saint.
- St. James is often depicted riding a white horse into battle.
- The Feast Day of St. James the Greater is July 25 and is widely celebrated in Spain, especially in Santiago de Compostela, where they hold a fireworks display at the end of a two-week celebration.
- During the middle ages, two million people a year came to Santiago de Compostela to worship at what was believed to be the burial place of St. James. As a holy place, Santiago was almost the equal of Rome and Jerusalem.