Dali, Christ and a Bloodless Cross

I went to see Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, displayed at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove. It’s the one of the gallery’s star attractions, and the corresponding hype inevitably makes the piece too small, despite its dedicated room with special lighting. It’s a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, yet He is somehow hovering in space, mysteriously suspended over a lake upon which is a fishing boat. Of the picture, Dali said “In 1950, I had a 'cosmic dream' in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the 'nucleus of the atom.' This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it 'the very unity of the universe,' the Christ!” No, I don’t know what he meant, either. Yet looking down on the cross from the rarefied perspective of the second heaven offers us an unusual view of this world-changing event.

One thing I noticed about the picture was the lack of blood and nails. Quite how the figure is attached to the beams, the artist does not reveal. But then, he isn’t really depicting Christ as making atonement for sin which is how the Bible treats the subject. How apt we are to sanitise its harrowing message, that God’s solemn justice demands terrible payment. I’ve been in High Anglican churches wherein I’ve beheld giant crosses of ‘Christ the King’, upon which hangs a serene figure bedecked in silk, crowned in gold, arms outstretched, insipid eyes gazing down. Not a drop of blood in sight. Admittdely, I'd prefer there were no statues or crosses in churches anyway, but my point's thrust remains- we attempt to clean up the crucifixion with its talk of sacrifice and propitiation.

Medieval theologian Peter Abelard (died 1142), offered a theologically diluted crucifixion, writing:

‘Christ united our human nature to himself , and by suffering in that same nature has demonstrated to us that supreme love…therefore our redemption through trough the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin , but secures for us true liberty’.

Similarly, but 800 years later, English theologian Hastings Rashdall reiterated Abelard’s view, saying “there is no other ideal given among men by which we may be saved, except the moral ideal which Christ taught us by his words, and illustrated by his life and death of love”.

This ‘Jesus died on a cross to show us love’ view is still popular today. Even evangelical sermons I have heard remark on the cross being an expression of ‘love’ but say little else. Like Dali, they’ve removed the nails, the thorny crown and wounded side; gone is God’s justice and wrath, absent is the need for actual atonement. The cross does show God’s love, but it’s only half the story. The love of the Father is expressed for sinners by punishing a substitute in their place. As Rees’ and Edwards’ hymn puts it:

On the mount of crucifixion...

heaven‘s peace and perfect justice,

kissed a guilty world in love.

Christ’s crucifixion will always enthral and fascinate the worlds of art and cinema, but few, even in the church, can stomach the implications of the bloodied cross; it points to a holy, righteous and vengeful God, whose love is far deeper and richer than we will ever comprehend. 

For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Exodus 20:5-6