And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. John 12:31-33 – KJV
Being a carbon-based bipedal organism with a comparatively short life span has its drawbacks. At birth we are helpless, red-faced, squawking bundles of potential—if we can live long enough to gain a foothold on this third rock from the sun. Most other mammal babies get up and walk within minutes of hitting the ground—we take years. We can’t see as keenly as eagles, trot as fast as horses, climb as good as monkeys, or swim like dolphins. Almost everything we’ve done to overcome these physical deficiencies are through extensions—mechanical devices that give us reach, sharpen our hearing, project our voices, and peel back surfaces to see underneath and beyond. There has to be some payoff for all this vulnerability, and there is—we have imaginations.
The imagination can lift us out of our everyday reality into another place, even another time. There is no doubt that a vibrant imagination is necessary for a child to try out scenarios, play with images and ideas, and stretch the mind in the process. Somewhere I’ve read that day-dreaming is part of mental exercise, as important as toughening the muscles and building endurance.
Our imaginations seem to specialize. For example, architects can visualize their buildings in three dimensions while most of us can’t “see” the structure until it’s built, a disadvantage that is not trifling. Others can spin stories, bring clay to life under their fingers, or discover the beauty in the symmetry of equations. I marvel at those who can leap from intuition to concept to theory like a ninja running up a wall. At times I write like a man trying to thread a needle behind his back: it can be done but it takes a great deal of time and bloodletting is to be expected.
Blessedly, one form of expression can be triggered by another. When I was a journalism student struggling for a lead to a story I’d often take a break, get myself down to the college library, and spend some time with Communication Arts, a magazine that features some of the best art and design in the country. Something about absorbing all that visual creativity and the possibility of wonder just over the page usually set me free to write my version of the truth.
So too in my spiritual landscape I’ve found that seeing through another’s creative vision often gives me new eyes to see what was there all along. Through the years I’ve found artists who give me a place to stand and thus change my understanding. Chagall is one, Roualt is another, Picasso, Rothko, Cezanne, Paul Klee—and Dali. One painting of his in particular has been a kind of talisman for me, the function of which is to bring me to a humbling perception of humanity.
Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951) was based on a drawing by a 16th century monk named St. John of the Cross. Christ hangs suspended on the cross above the world, unbloodied, without nails or wounds. The observer looks down at the top of Christ’s bowed head and simultaneously at a landscape of fisherman and boats. The effect is disconcerting at first as we plunge down vertically past the Christ and immediately level off to a horizontal plane. Dali traced inspiration for the extreme angle back to a dream he had, the vision of which appeared to him in color as the cosmic Christ. The painting was purchased in the early 50s by the Glasgow Corporation for 8, 200 pounds sterling, considered quite extravagant at the time. In 1961 a visitor heaved a brick through the canvas, incensed apparently by the angle that looked down upon Christ instead of up. The painting was restored and hangs in the Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, the curators having stoutly resisted an offer of $127 million by the Spanish government.
I don’t find the lack of blood or nails theologically upsetting. I know how Jesus suffered, and I don’t need Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ to drive the message home. In Dali’s painting Christ is still on the cross, his sinews twisting, his head bowed, the long shadow of one arm stretching ominously across the open space of the horizontal beam.
It’s the angle I’m interested in. We see Christ from God’s point of view; His Son, His beloved Son, eternally hanging there above the world, floating in silent and profound dignity, magnificent in death. Down below, the fishermen, oblivious to the Light of the World above them, draw their boat up on the shore. One is standing at the stern in water up to his knees while his companion on the shore drags out the nets to dry. They seem indecisive or perhaps just tired. If they caught any fish we’re not seeing the evidence. They may be heading home, weary from work, wondering how long they can survive without a catch.
When we see the Christ on the cross from the traditional angle looking upward it provokes our pity. The usual configuration is Mary, weeping on her knees or collapsing into the arms of John, the disciple who stayed to the end. Occasionally, we’ll see John the Baptist, a lamb, and several other well-dressed figures, usually the ones who commissioned the painting and paid the bill. We feel for Mary, her heart torn from her, and for John, whose duty to care for his Lord’s mother overrides his anxiety at being seen as one of the co-conspirators.
But from the angle that Dali provides we can sense God’s compassion for the world. When the world is too much with us, when we find ourselves loathing humanity, when we feel, with shame, our complicity in the wickedness and suffering of this age, we can be lifted up, free and clear, to look down through Christ and see our tired world from a new perspective—one that through imagination wounds and heals.