The art essay

The Virgin of Guadalupe (1959) by Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)

The path from Surrealism to the Incarnation was tortuous for Salvador Dalí, but this eccentric Spanish painter found his way from Freud to Faith through love, creativity, and a healthy dose of Roman art. The Virgin of Guadalupe, painted when the artist was in his mid-fifties, is the fruit of a decade-long conversion in the heart and in the art of this fascinating figure.

Paganism’s greatest painter

Salvador Dalí was one of the first painters of the Surrealist movement, which emphasized the superiority of the unconscious, irrational mind driven by feelings and desires. Much of the philosophy was based on the work of Sigmund Freud’s exploration of the unconscious, as well as the writing of Guillaume Apollinaire, who sought to eradicate the vestiges of traditional morals in modern society. Needless to say, nothing in this movement was based on revelation and Christ’s teaching.

Dalí made his name in the late 1920s and 1930s as the Surrealist painter par excellence, with broad landscapes decorated with objects that defied their natural forms in favor of soft, drooping lines. Chimera-like figures composed of body parts, machines, animals, and vegetables posed amid tendrils or random shapes, all intended to stimulate the unsettling nature of human concupiscence. These in many ways reflected the troubled nature of his complicated personal relationships. As disconcerting as the images may have been, they revealed an exceptional talent for drawing as well as sense of place and reality, no matter how distorted its representation. As many Surrealists began to move into more abstract art, Dalí resisted. After three trips to Italy from 1937–1939 exposed him to the transcendent art of Catholic Rome, Dalí declared, “I intend to become classical.”

From classical to Catholic

Classicism for Dalí meant a transformation in both his style and his subjects. Leaving behind the adolescent fantasies of his earlier years, Dalí’s figures grew more voluminous and his subjects began to engage with religion and history.

By the end of the 1940s, after a stint in the United States, Dalí was ready to return to the “sumptuous, spectacular” Catholic Faith and to produce his first religious work, The Madonna of Port Lligat. He presented a smaller version of the painting to Pope Pius XII for his approval, and moved back to Catalonia—the land of his roots. By 1954 he had converted and had married Gala, his longtime companion, in a Catholic ceremony. The next ten years saw a proliferation of religious images from Dalí’s studio, including The Virgin of Guadalupe.

Surrealism facilitated Dalí’s return to the Faith, offering him a portal through mysticism. The visions of his fellow Spaniards Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Ávila helped to channel his unchecked and disordered fantasies of youth into something more structured and incarnational. In his Mystical Manifesto of 1951, Dalí wrote that “nothing worse can happen to an ex-Surrealist than to become a mystic and know how to draw.” Capturing the ineffable with his paintbrush became Dalí’s mission.

Led by love

Old World meets New World in Dalí’s Virgin of Guadalupe. Saint Juan Diego’s vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico and the miraculous image on his tilma kickstarted the evangelization of the Americas. Yet, in composing this icon, Dalí turned to Raphael, evoking the image of his Sistine Madonna in Rome, painted twenty years before this miracle.

The lower part of the canvas is marked by an expanse of desert-like landscape, familiar from his youthful works. A crystalline vase breaks the broad band of brown and gray, drawing the eye up the fragile stalk of a pure white jasmine, reminiscent of a Fra Filippo Lippi altarpiece. Dalí’s signature “atomic clouds” churn above the bloom, varying from dark and stormy to billowy white. The heavens and the earth, once without boundaries or limitations in the minds of the Surrealists, find order and containment as they are enfolded into the robe of the Virgin, their energy focused upwards. This lower section recalls Dalí’s painting of the Discovery of America from one year earlier, executed in the cinemascope style he had perfected during his time in California. Now those same colors, clouds, and lines are subordinated to the vision of the Virgin.

Two kneeling figures turn away from the viewer, an optical device from Renaissance altarpieces intended to draw the viewer prayerfully into the scene. These were used in Dalí’s Last Supper, completed in 1955. The bare feet of the Virgin are faintly visible through the diaphanous robe, but strong diagonal strokes substitute the soft folds of drapery, reminiscent of a ladder. Angels are arranged along these rhythmic lines, evoking Jesus’ promise to one of his newly called disciples: Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (Jn 1:51).

The eye rises, only to find Dalí’s deviation from the authentic iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe—instead of hands clasped in prayer, Mary holds the plump Infant Christ. The ethereal hues fade away, and at the heart of this vision, there is Baby Jesus: Incarnate, voluminous, real. The famed flesh-tones of Raphael, the sfumato of Leonardo, these combine in Dalí to illustrate the Word made Flesh.

The Virgin, at the summit of the composition, bears the features of Dalí’s beloved wife Gala. As Raphael depicted his own beloved in the face of his Madonnas, so Gala, his guiding light in art and life, would be the model for all Dalí’s images of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The famous roses from Juan Diego’s cloak orbit around the figures; against the dark background the Virgin appears as the sun. The halo encircling the Virgin and Child resembles a sunflower, with most of the seeds tightly packed, but a few, bathed in light, begin to burst open.

This iconography, while startling, united the geographical divide between the Old World and the New, and the art of the past with the contemporary age.

Could it be that Dalí was attempting to sow seeds for a future Catholic art?

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy


Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), Private collection. © Aisa/Leemage. © Adagp, 2018.