.

I

This crucifixion hides the anguish. Racked
With pain, belied by bloodless hands and feet;
Intolerable torments, they compete
As muscles in that arching back contract.
His hanging head forestalls all eye contact;
And here we see Him, harrowing complete,
As Pilate meted out from judgment seat
Beyond this lorn forsaken barren tract.

And Dali gives us stage-lighting to show
These youthful figures, tinctured gold below,
Are simple fishermen. And there they stand,
Aghast at what they cannot understand:
That Christ the Son of God exalted some
To share His state and close to Him become.

.

II

Beneath their feet they furl a fishing net,
These figures that we see upon the ground.
Twilight, a nightjar makes its urgent sound
Unseen, a distant double bark offset
By otherwise persistent silence. Yet
Wherewith is this scene lit? The black profound
Above, behind us to our left, all round
Embrowned, kaleidoscopic colours set

To raze the parchèd earth. And these young men
Would never know a jeunesse dorée then,
They flung their nets, repaired them when required,
They ate when hungry, slept when they were tired:
But here we see, their garments flecked with gold,
These young ones mark the new as we the old.

.

III

How can His body hang, no nails to hands
Or feet as Dali has Him here portrayed?
So anodyne this bloodless corpse, conveyed
To blackest heights above the barren lands
Of Israel: the dreadful pain demands
Our awe, the horror that is here betrayed,
That dead weight tortured angle still displayed,
Such agony an infant understands.

But this is not a Cranach and nor yet
A Grünewald. We are not moved today
By horrors that were suffered yesterday.
Inured to Bosch and Brueghel scenes of sweat
And pain, more present horrors that we dread:
The pickled shark and that revolting bed.

.

IV

How sad to see around us decadence
On such a scale there is no turning back,
No slightest evidence that common sense
Can any more prevail against attack.
We cannot ever get back what we had
And there is no return to where we were,
The world’s artistic cognoscenti mad:
Dali the last hope of the connoisseur?

For he could paint, with sable in his hand.
Only in trompe l’œil is there a demand
That we suspend our disbelief, it’s good
His two dimensions keep his art surreal:
In Emin’s bed, Quinn’s head of frozen blood
The horror and the nastiness are real.

.

.

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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18 Responses

  1. Jeff Eardley

    Peter, I had another dictionary grabbing moment with, “jeunesse doree” only to realise that I am not, and never have been, one. Thank you for this super quartet from “The Book” and your encouragement, as ever, to delve deeper into this artwork.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – Thank you for your comment on this little quartet. I must pre-empt a torrent of unholy but well deserved abuse by owning to a crass blunder in poem number three, lines 12 and 13 which should read “…scenes of sweat / And pain, more…” and which I hope Evan will rectify for me. If you ever go to Glasgow you can see the real thing at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where I believe, unsurprisingly, it is their most popular painting.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Mike – Thank you. It’s incredible that I’ve only just seen the slip-up, but I’m glad it’s been put right even so late in the day.

  2. Brian Yapko

    Thank you for sharing this work, Peter, which I interpret as four related sonnets on one theme. I’m quite unfamiliar with Dali and this particular painting is quite at odds with the little I thought I knew about his surrealism. I’m grateful for your interpretation of the painting but still must confess a strong preference for crucifixion scenes in which the viewer sees Christ’s face. That one-on-one connection is very important to me and, I imagine, to a great many.

    Your mention of several terms, artists and artworks that I’ve never heard of sent me to google to look up — a pleasurable task since I love to learn. Alas, a less than pleasurable task when I realized the extent to which some of the art your poem criticizes really are rather awful if not depraved (“the horror and the nastiness” really are real!) But that just makes the Dali crucifixion that much more meaningful. It especially makes me appreciate traditional art. Either way, yours is a fantastic series of reflections. Thank you again.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Brian – thank you very much for your comments, and you are so right that the scene is very much at odds with our traditional understanding of what surrealism is all about. It is indeed very unlike the kind of art with which Dali is more traditionally associated, with the “Persistence of Memory,” for example, or his “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”, and I do remember very well my surprise at discovering, as a child, with a reproduction of the picture hanging in our house, that it was painted as recently as 1951! To see the harrowed face of Christ in a crucifixion scene one would have assumed to be essential, but the tortured angle of the figure does much to convey the suffering of Christ without it I think. In another artist to avoid painting the face might seem to be a bit of a “cop-out” because it is the most difficult part to paint, but not so with Dali: he could paint anything with absolute mastery!

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, I was not aware of this Dali painting and your series of Ekphrastic sonnets are educative, engaging, and exquisite. The comparison with the “present horrors” you mention serves to further Dali’s superior skill and sensitivity when it comes to depicting the unimaginable pain of our Saviour. Thank you very much for introducing me to this wonderful creation and for guiding me through its magnificence with four admirable poetic creations of your own.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – Thank you for your comment and I see that even your prose is alliterative, “educative, engaging and exquisite,” what poet could ask for finer praise ? – Thank you so much. As I remarked to Brian above it is, in the treatment of the subject matter, unusual for Dali but all his painting is crisp, sharply observed and precise in execution (and very unlike, in this respect, the work of his fellow-surrealist, the Belgian artist Rene Magritte, whose work is much rougher and looser in its creation). But looking at the painting it is difficult to believe that it was painted as recently as 1951, but then there were followers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (founded in 1848) still producing Pre-Raphaelite art into the 1920s. The tripe that is churned out by the great Turner-prize winners of today is just that, utter tripe, but I don’t know how there can be any recovery unless the perpetrators of such “art” can get beyond their mass self-delusion and admit it is worthless bilge, and can persuade their own promoters likewise. I don’t know how anybody is even equipped to judge the artistic merits of a sheep split in half, lights going on and off inside an otherwise empty room, urinals, rows of tablets on a shelf, frozen blood in the shape of a human head??? There, I’ve had a good rant and feel better for it!

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, Your poetry is not only ekphrastic but also didactic as you reflect on this depiction of the crucified and exalted Christ in a manner reminiscent of the reflections of St. John of the Cross, himself.

    The view of Christ in the Dali painting is that from heaven, the viewpoint of God–a view that embraces the earth, which is pictured at that bottom of the painting. The fishermen connect the two parts of John 12:32 where Jesus says (and I paraphrase), “When I am lifted up I will draw all men unto me.” By lifted up he was making a specific reference to crucifixion but also, tangentially, to his resurrection and ascension. The presence of the disciples serves as a reference to those he will draw to himself by grace through faith (note that it is Jesus, after all, who is the one who draws believers to himself). The lack of nails, while not denying his torturous death, represents, for me, the transcendence of his divine life over death and suffering.

    Peter, I find your insights both moving and compelling, in both their vivid poetic exegesis of the painting, itself, and the theological and biblical insights you distill from it. And, as a bonus, it is all gracefully wrapped up in masterful, sonnet form.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – many thanks for your comment and interesting explication of the theme of the work. I understand that the angle at which we view the image of Christ on the cross is based upon a rough sketch by the sixteenth century mysticSaint John of the Cross himself, from a vision he had of the crucifixion. When you look at the painting you see his feet together and each of his splayed hands form an inverted equilateral triangle which represents the Trinity. At least four of the apostles were fishermen, Peter and Andrew, John and James (pairs of brothers) and two of them were mending their nets when called, so we can guess who the fishermen are in the picture. Thank you for your help in explaining the meaning of the picture. You are a walking biblical concordance!

      Reply
  5. Eric

    Brilliant. In my opinion, one of the great sonneteers alive. Such subtle musicality. Just lovely. Reminds me of Charles Tennyson’s great work in the sonnet. Always look forward to Hartley’s work. Thanks

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Eric – many thanks indeed for these very kind and welcome comments. I’m fortunate when writing poems that touch on the subject of art that I have a ginormous axe to grind. It makes it a lot easier to write passionately and sincerely on a subject like the crucifixion of Christ when the subject is handled by a master like Dali. You will have gathered that I can’t abide so much of the inane tripe that masquerades in the modern art world as art!

      Reply
  6. David Watt

    Peter, thank you so much for introducing me to this painting by Salvador Dali. I was more familiar with his surrealist works. Your four sonnets are deep, perceptive and beautifully expressed.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – Thank you very much for your kind remark over my poems about Salvador Dali. I am surprised that he is not better known for this painting but then as the most talented and most imaginative of the surrealists he more or less defines a whole movement, and this painting, for Dali, is really a maverick isn’t it?

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    Peter, this is one of many little sonnet sequences in which you show your talent for treating a subject in truly individual poems that nonetheless work together as a group. I have seen the Dali picture work as a group with nine by other artists for meditating on the Crucifixion as a mystery of the Rosary. To me, the bloodless hands and feet emphasize Christ’s self-sacrifice. He may have been the victim of some little political intrigue, but the important aspect is that He freely chose to suffer for the salvation of a world of sinners.

    As well, James Tweedie’s remark about the heavenly perspective of the entire painting is important. As you say, the geometrical composition acknowledges the Trinity. Some earlier painters did that by picturing the Father and the Spirit above the crucifixion scene. I can think of two other modern artists who do something similar to what Dali did. Regarding the view of the corpus, Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ (2004) has a single tear fall from heaven at the moment of Christ’s death. It strikes the earth to cause an earthquake that wreaks havoc on Calvary and in Jerusalem. And it suggests the love and suffering of the Father with the Son–adding that perspective to the Son’s willingness to sacrifice Himself in order to make the necessary atonement to God’s justice.

    Regarding the fishermen at the foot of the Cross, I think of Nikos Kazantzakis novel, The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). The 1988 movie failed to understand the temptation. But the novel makes it clear with a scene in which Jesus at prayer envisions the entire world beneath Him. He asks how it would be different if He did NOT undergo the Cross, but went on to live a long life as a revered rabbi. In imagination He sees the answer. The world would be just the same. The one slight difference He discerns is twelve madmen wandering the roads of Palestine. He realizes He must suffer and die to give meaning to the lives of His friends. They are the ones who will change the world. This perspective from above gives meaning to His words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

    Your final sonnet of the four above sees the decadence of the world and its art in a similar fashion, with a wide perspective. The artist may not save the world, but he can reveal its need.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Margaret – I always look forward to and welcome your comments on my poetry, not least of all because you seem to manage to go so much more deeply into the subject matter of my poetry than I ever have, so that I learn more from your exegesis than anybody else could possibly learn from my verse. The bloodlessness of the figure I have always found intriguing (and I have been familiar with this painting from childhood) because mediaeval representations of Christ on the cross, as by Grünewald and Mantegna for example, are exceedingly gory. But the earliest representations of Christ on the cross in art, from the early church of the fourth and fifth centuries onwards, show no sign of Christ’s pain, as though to proclaim His victory over death, and to remove any suggestion of His physical degradation under the ordeal of His suffering. From early mediaeval times, and perhaps under the influence of St Francis of Assisi, his contemporaries like Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto began to show the body of Christ as being degraded by His suffering on the cross, lots of blood, sweat and tears, in order to show that His agony was the price of our redemption. I think the earlier representations of Christ, emphasising His transcendence over pain (and normally with His eyes closed as opposed to the usual mediaeval representations) is what Dali was driving at, and in painting Christ from such an angle he was able to circumvent the problem of what to do with His eyes. Signs of physical torment were important aids to veneration in mediaeval times, and I remember from my ownstudy and work on a couple of fifteenth century rood screens in Devon how every painted Saint is accompanied by the gory emblem of his or her martyrdom, and not simply as a means of identification!

      Reply
  8. Paul Freeman

    Both the picture and the poem show a unique and instructive perspective.

    As for your comment on the Turner Prize – what would Turner have thought?

    Thanks for the read, Peter.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Paul – Thank you for your kind comment. like you I would love to know exactly what J M W Turner would have thought of the prize winners who, by the very name of the prize, seem to be suggesting some sort of equivalence with the greatest painter Britain has ever produced!

      Reply

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