By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
I’m not sure very many people – even card-carrying Dali aficionados – are aware that the Vatican in Rome has a Salvador Dali painting in its permanent art collection. Actually, it owns a trinity of Dali’s, each with varying degrees of religious imagery.
While much of Dali’s life and work had nothing to do with religion, a good part of it did. In the late 1940s he had his first small version of “The Madonna of Port Lligat,” for example, blessed by Pope Pious XII. Three of his most famous paintings are religious in nature: “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” and “Corpus Hypercubus.”
The study for “Corpus Hypercubus” is one of the paintings in the Vatican Museum. Sometimes Dali’s preparatory studies were wonderfully finished works in their own right. This study is a good example of that.
A second Dali painting in the Vatican collection is “The Trinity,” also a study – in this case for the large “Ecumenical Council” of 1960, which hangs in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dali clearly expressed his Nuclear-Mystical sensibilities in this preparatory canvas. While the figure of God the Father is painted along classical lines, those of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are composed of quick dashes of paint that capture the anti-matter particles as imagined by modern physicists.
But I believe there’s another unique technique seen here. Notice in the background a linear series of circles on either side of God. Can you guess how Dali may have created this circular pattern? Here’s my conjecture:
It’s known conclusively that a similar appearance of this strip of circles, which appears in the extreme top right corner of “The Ecumenical Council” (not easily discerned in reproductions) was made by Dali pressing an octopus tentacle onto the canvas! It’s my belief that Dali did the same thing in his “Ecumenical Council” study in the Vatican.
If that seems a bit peculiar, so does the third Dali work in Vatican City – “Soft Monster in Angelic Landscape.” As I understand it, this work was gifted to the Vatican by King Juan Carlos I in 1980. Its religious connection is seen in several angelic figures.
But the “monster” figure lying over the rock in the foreground is a variant of the well-known “Great Masturbator” head seen in “The Persistence of Memory” and many other Dali paintings.
It’s not clear whether the Vatican is aware of this reference, but the appearance of angels helps justify the work’s Vatican home. And while the Vatican boasts three original Dali’s, I don’t believe there are any other important works by the Catalan surrealist in the Eternal City.