Dali Embraces Science & Religion in Spectacular ‘Nuclear Cross’
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Today let’s consider the absolute mastery of Salvador Dali as an easel painter. Make no mistake: the man was a 20th century master. He surely earned that reputation on two key grounds: his ideas were unparalleled in their imagination and prescience; and his technique was worthy of being called Old Master-like.
I like to say that – most especially with the more subconscious-induced surrealist paintings, drawings, and watercolors in his oeuvre – Dali’s near-photographic technical skill made the unreal real! It sure seemed that way.
A great example of Dali’s precision is “Nuclear Cross” of 1952 (private collection). Here the 48-year-old Catalan master, now driven more by science and religion than Sigmund Freud, delivers perfection by however you wish to measure it.
A cross is formed by multiple cubes painstakingly painted, though none of the four arms of the cross touch each other – suggestive of intra-atomic physics with which Dali was fascinated and which informed his then new Nuclear-Mystical period.
Floating like an atom in the center is a round Eucharistic loaf of bread painted as if it could just as easily have come off the easel of Raphael, Velasquez, Zurbaran, or Vermeer. Whatever else critics have said about Salvador Dali, not one has ever questioned the man’s ability to paint extraordinarily well.
Meanwhile, more Renaissance master-like perfection is seen in the cloth (called a corporal), parts of which are threaded and frayed with such wonderful meticulousness that one could mistake it for a photograph. Reminding us of how Dali defined his technique early on: “Color photography, hand-painted!” The cloth here makes us recall a similar-size work from two years earlier – “Carnation and Cloth of Gold” (private collection), and, even more so, the 1952 oil, “Arithmosophic Cross” (whereabouts unknown).
The gold trim on the corporal is said within the Christian lexicon to symbolize joy, triumph, and resurrection.
Isn’t it interesting to note that every major religious painting by Salvador Dali was done with a sense of perfection, unity and rigorous balance? Take, for example, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Dali constructed this famed masterpiece along exceptionally precise mathematical dictates of the Golden Ratio. And the unusually strict symmetry of the painting adds to the sense of uncompromising order.
Likewise, his “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow, Scotland) and “Corpus Hypercubus” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), were executed in a quite purposeful mathematical manner – the former beginning with a simple triangle, the latter inspired by a hypercube.
Unlike so many painters before him, who predictably portrayed religious scenes in a more conventional manner that may have captured greater emotion than Dali’s work, the Surrealist master was more interested in the symbolism, orderliness and spiritual perfection of such events as the Last Supper and even the crucifixion of Christ, which Dali chose to express not as a moment of unspeakable suffering, but as a symbol of perfection, beauty and hope, glorifying the risen son of God.
“Nuclear Cross” is a kind of text book example of what Dali endeavored to achieve with his Nuclear-Mysticism: a nod to science and nuclear physics, while also a nod to religion in general and the power of the cross in particular.