Dali’s “The Madonna of Port Lligat”
Salvador Dali’s The Madonna of Port Lligat is a work that’s full of surprises — among them the fact that such a captivating work is tucked away in the permanent collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art.
What’s not surprising is the identity of its painter. While the serene image of a reverent Virgin Mary with hands held over an infant Jesus may be a far cry from dripping clocks or stilt-legged elephants, the work is unmistakably Dali. Both Madonna and child have rectangles cut out of their torsos, and her arms hang detached from her body. Everything floats. The mountains on the right of the frame look vaguely breast-like.
It’s a style that shouldn’t mesh with its gallery-mates. Madonna is a relatively small painting, 18 ½” by 15 ½”, dwarfed by the larger works on the walls surrounding it. It is a child of the 1940s in a room full of centuries-old paintings. It pits surreal imaginings of Christianity against realistic renderings. Yet it belongs there.
Part of that is Dali’s conscious decision to model his painting after another: Piero della Francesca’s Madonna and Child with Angels and Six Saints. Mary’s pose in Dali’s Madonna is almost identical to that of Francesca’s, and the arch behind her and shell with dangling egg above have clear analogues in the older work.
The fragments form just one of the painting’s many frames, which telescope inward and give the work a stereoscopic feel. The arch draws the eye to the Madonna; the space carved into her torso forces it to look upon the infant Christ; the window cut into his chest looks further — into blue, blue emptiness.
That emptiness initially drew me to the painting. To my eyes, it was Dali’s way of depicting Catholicism and Christianity, dissected and found wanting.
History — as told by museum curator of education Lynne Shumow — suggests an alternate interpretation.
Dali painted Madonna in the midst of a return to Catholicism, which he had vehemently rejected earlier in life. He even asked for and was granted the painting’s blessing by Pope Pius XII, although whether or not he made the request merely for the opportunity to ask for papal sanctioning of his marriage to his once-wed lover Gala is up in the air. Through this lens, the windows and broken arch symbolize both the violent changes that result from an atomic explosion — a subject Dali was fascinated by ever since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and the parallel metamorphosis of the Virgin Mary and the unborn Christ Child.
Intellectually, I want to accept this story as fact, but my instincts tell me it’s not that simple. Maybe I’m just projecting my own beliefs onto Madonna, but I can’t look in those windows without seeing the nothingness alongside the explanation.
As I look closer, more questions and ambiguities reveal themselves. Is the ball floating in the baby Jesus’ hand representative of a globus cruciger — the traditional symbol for Christ’s dominion over the world — or the symbol of Venus, a marker of femininity that sharply contrasts the idea of patriarchal authority? Why drive a wedge through the top of Mary’s head, or add a barely perceptible red dot to the top of Jesus’? And again: What are we supposed to see in these windows?
I’m not sure there’s an answer. Unlike the works it’s based on, Dali’s Madonna is as unstable as the age that inspired it. It teeters on the edge of a precipice, in the moment of uncertainty before you can see if it will fall back to safety or forward into oblivion.
Seeing it, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on that edge as well.