While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. - William Wordsworth
I’ll never forget the feelings I had the first time I saw Salvador Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper”in the stair well of the West Wing of the National Gallery. Replete with my advanced degrees in theology and clear in my worked out apologetics, I, like many others, castigated it for its arrogant docetism, its sarcastic orderliness, its in-your-face anti-intellectualism. There was Jesus with a see-through body, the groveling disciples all bowed in perfect symmetry, the Father with no head. What a horror. What a travesty of the true beauty of the incarnation.
The painting was criticized by as widely disparate authors as Francis Schaeffer and Paul Tillich. Schaeffer accused it of providing a “mystical meaning for life…, a vault into”—in classic Schaefferian language—“an area of nonreason to give [Dali] the hope of meaning”. Tillich, more prosaically, called it “simply junk” in part because of its portrayal of Jesus as a “sentimental but very good athlete on an American baseball team” and a technique that was “a beautifying naturalism of the worst kind” (Michael Novak, “Misunderstood Masterpiece", America).
Dali himself, having embraced Catholicism in 1949 and broken completely philosophically with the Surrealists, apparently felt that he was simply portraying the Lord’s supper—emphatically not the Last Supper—as the miraculous thing that it is: a sacrament, a mysterious meeting of the transcendent God with every day mortals. The transparent Christ demonstrates the “real presence”, though unseen, of the Son of God. The headless Father fulfills the Scripture “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20, ESV).
So now I view the painting differently, but not really. I’m afraid most who see this painting will not have any idea of the painter’s intention. They will simply see a headless God, and think, “Yep. This is a pretty good portrayal of the Christianity I know—ignorant and slavishly medieval.”They will see the blue sky where the Father’s “heart”would be and think, “Just like I think. The church is just a bunch of cold-hearted creeps with no compassion for anyone not like them.” And they’ll see an irrelevant Christ, blond-haired and blue eyed, hand cocked like a faux pistol, and think, “This surfer dude is pretty cool but, man, is he out of touch.”
The painting now has its own life, and that life has a hard time depicting the reality of the suffering, magisterial, triune God to those without eyes to see.