The Beauty of the Crucified Lord

Published April 12, 2001

The Catholic Difference

GLASGOW. In the decade since I was last here, one thing certainly hasn’t changed: that distinctive Glaswegian accent, almost incomprehensible to the unaccustomed ear. In other ways, though, Glasgow is a kind of Scottish Cleveland—a once-grand center of heavy industry, oriented toward the water, now remaking itself into a 21st century center of finance, culture, and tourism.

As you look out the windows in Cardinal Thomas Winning’s office, the most notable architectural feature on the south bank of the River Clyde is a new mosque—emblematic of profound demographic changes in the area and of political alliances unimaginable twenty-five years ago. For as the new Scottish Parliament seeks to make homosexuality the equivalent of race for civil rights purposes, Muslim Clydesiders and their religious leaders are among the Catholic Church’s allies in defending the legal and social prerogatives traditionally accorded to what most of Scotland still thinks of as “the family.”

Happily, the ubiquity of the culture wars was not atop my meditative agenda as I climbed the hill up to St. Mungo’s cathedral, prayed at the tomb of Glasgow’s founder and patron (also known as St. Kentigern, “Mungo” being primitive Scots for “pal” or “buddy”), and then went to the nearby Museum of Religious Life and Art, where Salvador Dali’s most famous painting, “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” is displayed. Dali’s early Surrealism seems in sharpest contrast to the grittiness of Glasgow, a city whose former greatness was built on railroad cars, coal dust, steel, and great ships. Yet the museum’s curators sensed some sort of aesthetic fit between Glasgow and Dali, and purchased the painting in 1952.

Dali’s is a daring, even startling, portrayal of the crucifixion. The Spanish painter took as his model a sketch by St. John of the Cross, based on a vision the great Carmelite mystic had experienced. In the painting, Christ and the cross are seen from above, suspended over a port city where a fisherman tends his boat. The body is not attached to the cross by nails, there is no crown of thorns nor any of the other signs of physical torment, and the viewer does not see the face of the crucified Christ, whose head is bent down toward the landscape over which the cross hovers.

Writing to the trustees of the Glasgow Art Gallery in 1952, Dali described his religious and artistic aims in these moving terms: “My aesthetic ambition in this picture was completely the opposite of all the Christs painted by most modern painters, who have all interpreted him in the expressionistic and contortionistic sense, thus obtaining emotion through ugliness. My principal preoccupation was that my Christ would be as beautiful as the God that He is.”

In the Glasgow museum, “Christ of St. John of the Cross” is displayed on the far wall of a gallery in which the visitor can also admire a millennia-old Egyptian mummy mask; the Buddha Shakyamani, a form of the Buddha “calling the earth to witness;” a splendid piece of modern Islamic calligraphy composed of texts from the Koran; and the eleven-headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or “Bodhisattva of Compassion,” who declined to enter the bliss of nirvana and took a vow to “save all sentient beings.” The gallery testifies to the universality of the human yearning for the divine: for a truth that transcends and completes all worldly truths, and a love that deepens and redeems all earthly loves.

As I sat in the gallery and reflected on Dali’s extraordinary painting in these multicultural surroundings, it occurred to me that the curators, by placing “Christ of St. John of the Cross” at the end of the room, hovering over other magnificent expressions of humanity’s religious sense, were making (however unconsciously) a theological point—the point made by the Second Vatican Council, by John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptor Missio, and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s September 2000 declaration, “Dominus Iesus.” All truths tend toward the one Truth, who is God revealed in Christ. The cross is the center, not only of this remarkable gallery, but of the human story.

That is what we mark on Good Friday, and at Easter.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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