Jesus from two different perspectives, #1
Dalí and Van Eyck
Christ of St. John of the Cross (Salvador Dalí, 1951)
Most images of the crucifixion of Jesus present the scene from the vantage point of the human onlookers: The cross is planted right there in front of us, Christ is hanging on it, and there are usually various subsidiary figures (Mary, John the apostle, etc.) standing around the foot of the cross and watching the unfolding drama with us. Christ being the natural focus of attention in such a scene, his facial expression is usually highlighted as well—we can see in his expression the agony of torment, or perhaps resigned submission, an awareness that what is happening is part of a greater purpose. But there is another actor in the crucifixion scene, one who caused that greater purpose to be, and one whose point of view is not often treated in visual art—the notable exception being Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross.
Being a painting by Dalí, there is necessarily some scenic details (the landscape, the boat on a lake) that fill in the otherwise empty edges of the composition. But for our purposes we can ignore those aspects and concentrate on the picture’s singular perspective. I don’t know of any other picture which shows the crucifixion from the point of view of God the Father. It invites us to ask questions: what was God thinking, as his son was sufferings on the cross for the sins of humanity?
Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (Jan van Eyck, c. 1434)
George van der Paele, a canon of St. Donatian’s church in Bruges in the early 15th century, was unable to minister in the church after his health suffered a setback when he was 62 years old. Thus denied the ability to come close to Christ in formal worship, he commissioned Jan van Eyck to make a painting for him. In a notable departure from the era’s common practice with pictures of saints, the painting shows Van der Paele in the presence, not only of his namesake saints, but of the virgin and child as well.
What went through Van der Paele’s mind when he saw himself in the picture for the first time? Probably the same emotions that Van Eyck so masterfully captured in van der Paele’s portrait—that of reverential awe. Here, in a manner that he never could have achieved on earth anymore, Van der Paele was finally close to Jesus—in the same room as him, making eye contact with him.
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