‘Ecumenical Council’ Perhaps Best Known for Dali’s Self-Portrait


By Paul Chimera

Dali Historian/Writer

Whenever Salvador Dali took on any major project, the world watched and waited – sometimes with bated breath. With so unpredictable a figure as Dali, you never quite knew what to expect from this eccentric denizen of contemporary counter-culture.


So when Dali declared in 1959 that he was working on a major canvas in homage to the coronation of Pope John XXIII and his revolutionary Ecumenical Council – which portended seismic changes in the Catholic Church – the public wondered just what would land on Dali’s 10 ft. x 8 ft. canvas.


True to form, Dali created what has come to be applauded as a dynamic and beautiful religious tribute – even if it seemed he had a pact with himself – like Norman Rockwell – to put his own image in many of his masterpieces. And, while he was at it, who should appear in the pose of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses but Dali’s wife, Gala!


Dali depicts the Trinity with God the Father at the top, whose face we never see; the Son is seen with a cross in his left hand; and the Holy Spirit symbolized by the dove above his head.


Patron Reynolds Morse, who purchased this 1960 work ($250,000, as I recall) for what is now the Dali Museum of St. Petersburg, Florida, was fascinated by its underlying mathematics. He noted that the cross is at the center of converging lines, forming four triangles that neatly section the composition. Just below that point is the scene of the Coronation.


But what “The Ecumenical Council” has come to be most noted for is the extraordinary self-portrait of Salvador Dali. It is clearly a nod to Dali’s favorite artist, Diego Velasquez, reminiscent of the 17th century master’s self-portrait in his legendary painting, “Las Meninas.” It is a wonderfully realistic and trenchant image of Dali and is one of the most reproduced details of any Dali work.


I remember, when I was publicity director of the original Dali Museum in Beachwood (Cleveland), Ohio, watching Eleanor Morse talk to groups about this part of the painting. She would note that, while Dali always said he wanted to achieve true three-dimensionality from a flat surface, she believed he had already achieved it in this remarkable self-portrait.


When you go to the Dali Museum in Florida, take note of how Dali’s right hand seems to project from the canvas – almost like the holograms he created 10 years later!


That kind of realism – also seen in the impressive technical handling of Gala’s garment – is counterpoised with the zig-zag technique with which Dali painted the Christ image. This and other instances of a more free-form approach in “Ecumenical Council” was intended to represent the fast-moving atomic particles that had so fascinated Dali, as modern science was focused on nuclear physics – a phenomenon that was informing much of Dali’s work at the time.


While some questioned Dali’s judgment for putting himself and his wife in a holy picture like “The Ecumenical Council,” I look at it this way: Dali was proud of himself…he worshipped Gala…so why not!



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