28 March 2014
Art for Lent (24): ‘The Temptation of
Saint Anthony’ (1946), by Salvador Dalí
Over the past few weeks, I have written about Lent as a wilderness experience, and I illustrated this yesterday with ‘Christ in the Desert’ by the Russian artist Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi. Earlier this week, in the module on Patristics, I was speaking about the Desert Fathers, and to illustrate the story of Saint Anthony, I used ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ by Salvador Dalí.
I have chosen this painting as my work of Art for Lent this morning [28 March 2014]. This oil painting on canvas measures 89.7 x 119.5 cm and is in the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ was painted by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí in 1946. It was finished immediately before his “classical period” or the “Dalí Renaissance.”
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was known for the eccentric and striking images in his work. In 1946, Dali was invited to participate in a painting competition organised by a film production company, Loew Lewin, for a painting on the theme of the temptation of Saint Anthony.
Dalí painted this work in a matter of days in a studio in New York. It was the first and only time Dalí took part in a contest, and he was unsuccessful, with Dalí losing out to the German artist Max Ernst, an innovator in the Dada movement.
This is Dalí’s his first painting to depict his interest in the intermediates between heaven and earth. While he was painting this canvas, his contemporaries were concerned with post-war concepts and subjects. But Dalí chose to paint subjects he considered spiritual and to reveal the hidden powers in them.
Dalí believed that all objects possessed this power, and he sought to capture it in his painting. He was inspired too by his fascination with the atomic bomb, which he regarded as mystical and powerful.
This painting depicts the temptations Saint Anthony the Great faced in the Western Desert in Egypt in the third century. His biographer, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, tells us Saint Anthony renounced his worldly possessions to live alone and to strengthen his faith. In the desert, Saint Anthony prayed repeatedly as Satan tempted repeatedly.
Dalí sets the scene in a desert-like landscape with a low horizon line, a combination of clouds with dark and warm tones, and an azure sky.
It is painted in a classical style, with the images depicted in a refined state. The range of the mid-section to the top of the painting contains the action: a horse leads an advancing parade of elephants, all walking on long spindly legs. On their backs, the elephants carry monumental iconography: a fountain with a statue of a naked woman holding her breasts in her hands, an obelisk, a building complex that holds the torso of a naked woman and that is topped by statues, and a vertical tower.
Below them, Saint Anthony holds a-high a cross in his right hand, and with a human skull at his feet. Saint Anthony is kneeling, a posture of submission. He has shed his clothing and is raising his hand towards the oncoming parade of temptation. And so Dalí contrast the saint’s weakness and the power of the cross with this terrible temptation.
Saint Anthony is dwarfed and confined to the bottom left corner of the painting by the approaching monsters. Behind him, an ambiguous form supports the weight of his body with his left hand. The negative space around him and in the foreground shows the distance from the temptation in front of him.
The animal parade is the focal point of the painting because of its size and its arrangement.
In the foreground, at the front of the line of temptations, is a monstrous white horse. The rearing horse represents the fountain of desire, and the form of the horse represents strength and voluptuousness. The horse is a symbol of strength, yet it seems frightened by the small body of Saint Anthony. Does this imply that the strength of Saint Anthony and his faith are enough to combat temptation?
The position of the horse indicates it may also symbolise something else. The horse is standing on its hind legs exposing its undercarriage. Its mane looks like flames of a fire, representing the fiery passion of sex. The muscular body of the horse can also represent a female’s voluptuousness. This is reinforced by the horse’s gaze at the breasts of the naked woman.
The elephants have long, spindly, fragile legs. As the legs of Dali’s elephants extend higher and higher, they symbolise the human desire to excel. However, as the feet of these gargantuan beasts are planted on the ground so are human dreams planted in reality. While a common symbol in Dali’s work, the elephants were not completely original.
The first elephant behind the horse is carrying a golden cup symbolising fertility and lust on its back, with a naked woman balanced on a golden pedestal. The angle of the naked woman implies her footing is unstable, illustrating the precarious balance between fertility and lust.
The second elephant is carrying an obelisk inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s obelisk in Rome, the Pulcino della Minerva. This famous elephant sculpture is one of eleven Egyptian obelisks in Rome. Dalí also used a Bernini-inspired elephant two years earlier in the background of his painting ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’ (1944).
The third and fourth elephants are burdened with Venetian palaces in the style of Palladio. Andrea Palladio was a Venetian architect who, like Bernini, was commissioned for religious art. Dalí associates the work of these two religious artists with the elephants of temptation. Is he commenting on the artists, on religious architecture, or on religion?
A fifth elephant in the background carries a tall tower that displays phallic overtones. What is the meaning of the direct reference to Bernini covered in the background by clouds?
The ground is desert-like. Secondary creatures, a mountain, a dark sky, grey clouds and a palace can be discerned at the horizon line.
In the clouds we catch glimpses of fragments of El Escorial, representing spiritual and temporal disorder. The Royal Palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, more commonly called El Escorial, 45 km north-west of Madrid, was the official residence of the King of Spain until 1861. But it is also a well-known Augustinian monastery, so it represents both Church and State. We can only barely make out the building in among the clouds. Is El Escorial being resisting temptation? Are Church and State being consumed by temptation?
Is Dalí’s painting ambiguous or positive about Christianity. He shows Saint Anthony facing all the temptations we face not only in the desert but in the world today, including lust, wealth, power, privilege, idolatry, vanity, and relying on personal strength. The dramatic reaction of the horse to the raised cross tells us Saint Anthony is able to ward off temptation with his faith.
How you respond to this in the middle of Lent? What are your personal temptations? How do you resist them? Do you rely on the power of the Cross?
Tomorrow: The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, Coventry Cathedral.