Scotland's favourite painting: Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross

By Gill Davies

Christ of St John of the Cross
© Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

Salvador Dali's masterpiece, Christ of St John of the Cross, was first displayed in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on 23 June 1952.

Dr Tom Honeyman, then the Director of Kelvingrove negotiated with Dali and his agent for the copyright to be included in the purchase price of £8,200 – much lower that the catalogue price of £12,000. Despite his efforts, there was an outcry when its purchase was announced.

Dali was impressed by Honeyman's staunch defence of his painting and saw him as the Don Quixote of the museum world. They struck up a friendship and, over the proceeding years, corresponded regularly. Their letters are now held in the National Library of Scotland.

Larger version of Christ of St John of the Cross (saatchi-gallery.co.uk).

Letters between Dr Honeyman and Salvador Dali
Letter from Dali to Dr Honeyman © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí | Letter from Dr Honeyman to Dali – Courtesy of the Honeyman family

Full-size versions: From Dr Honeyman to Salvador Dali | From Salvador Dali to Dr Honeyman

In the letter above, he tells Dr Honeyman about an acquaintance's visit to Glasgow and also says that he is 'working, working, working.' Honeyman tried several times to persuade Dali to come to Glasgow but was unsuccessful – Dali disliked travelling and refused to fly. During a visit to Dali's house in Port Lligat, Honeyman suggested to the artist that his attitude to art could be summed up by the statement, 'Art is the imagine having fun with the Understanding'. Dali's reply was, 'There is much more to it than that'. (T J Honeyman, Art and Audacity, Collins, 1971).

Salvador Dali and Tom Honeyman at Port Lligat
Salvador Dali and Tom Honeyman at Port Lligat. © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

Dali's surrealist peers were critical of his interest in religion. He took his inspiration for the painting from a drawing of the Crucifixion made by St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish saint who had a vision in which he saw himself looking down on Christ on the cross from above.

Dali had a similar dream in which he saw Christ on the cross above the landscape of his home, in Port Lligat in Catalonia, northern Spain. After a second dream, he was inspired to paint his Christ without nails through his hands or a crown of thorns on his head. He wanted him to be beautiful.


He presented Honeyman with a sketch of his portrayal of Christ with the inscription, 'For my friend Honeyman with much affection, Salvador Dali.' © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí

Edwin Morgan captures Dali's desire in his ode to the painting, 'Salvador Dali: Christ of St John of the Cross.'

The model for Dali's Christ was Hollywood stuntman, Russell Saunders. He strapped Saunders (who was Gene Kelly's body double in Singin' in the Rain') to a gantry so he could see the effect of the pull of gravity on his body.

Using mathematical theories to work out the proportions for the painting, Dali saw himself as the first artist to paint pictures that could combine science with religious belief and called this Nuclear Mysticism.

In 1993, the painting was transferred to the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art and came back to Kelvingrove for the reopening after restoration in July 2006.

When it was suggested that it should be hung in a church, not in a museum, Honeyman's reply was ' … carried to the conclusion of that logic, Rembrandt's The Slaughterhouse should be hung in a cattle market.' (T J Honeyman, Art and Audacity, Collins, 1971).

In 2005, it was voted Scotland’s favourite painting in a poll conducted by The Herald newspaper.

Thanks to Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums), Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, National Library of Scotland and the Honeyman family.

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