Some of you will know the painting, Christ of St John of theCross by Salvador Dali. It hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and HistoryMuseum in Glasgow in an unprepossessing position, easily missed and walked by. The gift shop more than makes up though if you do happen to miss it: with posters, scarves, postcards, key rings and so forth. The Art Gallery and Museum holds an eclectic mix of ‘stuff’ and it is easy to while away an age drifting around the galleries and corridors being amused, entertained – and occasionally surprised. I was amazed when I saw the Dali there as I didn’t know it was there at all.
The painting was bought for £8,200 by Dr Tom Honeyman, the head of the Glasgow’s city art galleries in 1952. In June of last year, BBC Radio Scotland broadcast a programme about the painting, and of it was said:
From the start there was uproar: art students, religious bigots, critics, stingy rate-payers were all appalled that Honeyman had spent so much money and bought this atypical Dali with its mesmerising stigmata-less, floating crucifixion. But Honeyman put them at defiance… He saw himself as a showman, whose job was to show pictures and to pull the people in. He recognised from the first the unique pulling power of this extraordinary painting which has stormed the hearts of Glaswegians.
It is interesting to note that the radio programme went on to record, The painting can't be so much as moved within the gallery without exciting comment and opinion from the public to whom it is THEIR painting - how dare some curator move it!
I first saw the painting at the Seeing Salvation Exhibition at the National Gallery in 2000 and I guess the last place I would have expected to see it would be in an Art Gallery in Glasgow: something so famous, something so well-known and celebrated across the world, something so loved by Christians – as we see Christ hovering above the world, hanging on the cross, arms stretched out in embrace, in love, in compassion, in self-offering, in sacrifice.
And the clue to where I am going is in that telling phrase: the last place I would have expected to see. I imagine that those who encountered Jesus 2,000 years ago could easily have said, the last place I would have expected to see… Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, the light of the world – and so on.
Being surprised by Christ is what the Christian life is about. Christ is found in unexpected places. Christ lives in unexpected people. Christ is revealed in unexpected ways. So often, the Church can find itself – in many subtle and unspoken ways – saying, the last place I would have expected to see – as if the Church has a monopoly on the ways and workings of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Dali painting is not only compelling, it is also strangely beguiling. Many are fooled into a sense of reverie. Sea-like colours, a benevolent sentinel Christ, the boat resting on the edge of still waters – all these belie the truth that the crucifixion was violent, that Christ’s suffering was not without a level of resistance, and that the price he paid was for the sake of all humanity – all humanity, without exception.
In this week, at the start of which we prayed, give us the mind to follow you and to proclaim you as Lord and King, it is good to ask ourselves when we last said of anything to do with faith: the last place I would have expected to see – in terms of a judgement that might suggest Jesus didn’t belong there, or we wouldn’t have put Jesus there, or even that we didn’t want Jesus to be there at all. Christ’s embrace, love, compassion, self-offering, and sacrifice – all that we see in the painting by Dali, and that we believe to be the truth of the cross – all these are for the world, Christ’s world, the world in which he lived and moved and had his being. We live and move in this world too – and Jesus chose to be here with us. I close with a poem by R S Thomas:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked.
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.