The Unsigned Cross

Last year when Nandini and I visited the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures in Meghalaya, I remember pointing at this mural and being like oh hey they did a homage to— but at that moment, my mind was quite blank; I could remember only that I knew the original painting being referenced, but not what it was, and promptly forgot all about it before my phone got any signal again, so I didn’t look it up. But just now I happened upon the picture in my photo album and remembered this time: Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

The Don Bosco Museum is run by the Salesians, who have been active in the region for a century, and has several exhibits focusing on the history of Christian missionaries &c. in the region. Hence the mural, which is the least of these. The museum itself was constructed in the 90s, so the mural presumably must date from no earlier. Salvador Dalí made his painting in 1951, so in his Catholic fascist era—well, he had been a fascist for far longer, but in keeping with his move to Francoist Spain, the Catholicism was relatively new.

Dalí lived to cause offence and the most offensive thing a member of the Spanish avant garde could do, by 1951, was to endorse the church and praise the religious traditions that Franco claimed were the true Spanish heritage. This painting glories in sleek archaism. Its style may look cornily photographic or cinematic but actually it is closely modelled on visionary 17th century Spanish paintings by Zurbaran and Velazquez.

(from this 2009 article by Jonathan Jones)

That citation of Zurbarán is interesting, because perhaps even more than the novelty of the point of view, what I always found striking about the Dalí is that piece of paper resting on the cross at its top, folded into quarters and with a corner lifted, in place of a titulus crucis. It is faithfully recreated in the form of what looks like an equally blank scroll, in the Don Bosco mural. Neither says INRI, as one might expect, and they do not have an artist’s signature, as would be traditional with a cartellino (in Italian; in Spanish a cartela), a once-popular trompe l’oeil device to include a note (looking more or less exactly like that) about the painting or its painter in the painting itself. Francisco de Zurbarán used cartelas as signatures frequently, as did many other Spanish painters of the period, such as El Greco, in paintings such as these: El Greco’s Saint Andrew and Saint Francis (1595-1598) on the right, with the cartela on the ground beside them, or Zurbarán’s The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628) on the left, where the cartela is pinned to the tree or post or which the saint is bound.

In both of the above paintings, the cartela exists within the world of the painting, much as the unsigned note does in the Dalí. That is interesting because there are cartelas that exists on a different diegetic plane (and of course I am fascinated with travel between diegetic planes, this being a major concern of my own writing) such as, for instance, Zurbarán’s own Adoration of the Shepherds (1638) below, which places the trompe l’oeil cartela figuratively on the surface of the painting, as if it were literally a tag attached to the canvas.

Last year, there was some Dalí news. In the 70s, a good twenty years after the painting above, Dalí revisited it to create a sculpture of the same name: Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Or rather, he made a wax model that could be used to cast multiple bas-relief sculptures using a process that is known as lost wax casting.

This is how lost wax casting works, in brief, as I understand it. An artist makes an original model in clay or wax or anything they want to work in. A mould is made from this model, and the desired number of wax copies can be made using the mould. A given wax copy like this is coated with a kind of sandy slurry to create a heat-resistant final mould around it. This is then put in a kiln under extreme heat to melt the wax out (hence “lost wax” as a name for the method), leaving a hollow, heat-resistant mould into which molten bronze or another suitable metal can be poured for the final casting. While multiple such bas-relief casts of the Christ of Saint John of the Cross have been circulating, the original wax model that Dalí made in the 70s had been lost until last year, when it was found and appropriately overpriced. Presumably due to it having been lost, this wax model is also apparently called The Lost Wax, which is either somebody’s very clever pun on a lost wax model used for lost wax casting, or just everybody being very confused about what’s going on. The model, and a typical bas-relief, look like this.

To me, it looks like absolute ass, just a total piece of shit, though of course I am not a doctor. It seems odd that Dalí would tie this garbage to his (controversial, probably fascist somehow, but iconic) painting by using the same title. Much casual commentary seems to claim that the bas-relief is replicating the painting in three dimensions somehow, which is nonsensical to me since the angles are completely different, this one being much more conventional—frankly, I don’t know if the doubled angles of the painting can even be represented in sculpture at all, it seems to me that this is impossible by design? But perhaps this is, to borrow a phrase kept alive to this day by Sri Lankan newspaper editors, only Dalí belatedly snook-cocking at the paragone. Anyway, the interesting thing about this sculpture is that it lacks the cartela, and the INRI has reasserted itself. Whatever he was doing in the 50s, here he is doing something else.

How can we read an unsigned cartela in place of the titulus on a cross? Is that absence about the authorship of the painting, or the authorship of the crucifixion? The diegetic plane—the surface of the cross, not the surface of the canvas—suggests the latter, and perhaps that is why this crucifixion is bloodless. Perhaps, too, the absence of the titulus mirrors the absence of the nails and the thorns: every instrument of pain has been removed from this crucifixion, including the cruel words. Or perhaps it is that signature itself is superfluous in the age of celebrity, so there is only the gesture, only the sign of a signature. All this you see in fiction, too. Everyone from Stephen King on down has written themselves in as a character, and that’s not even counting more or less thinly disguised author inserts or autofiction. But there is also a broader question in the unsigned signature, which it seems to me lies in what we sometimes call style, which is a poor word for this thing, this suchness, this idea of a particular articulation of the world expressed in the work produced by a singular human embodied consciousness, which is to say, it is the articulation of the world by the world—its complexity, its violences, its graces—as refracted through a tiny lens, this eye of a needle, that we call a person.

Both Dalí’s painting and sculpture refer repeatedly to the Christ of St. John of the Cross, which is an actual drawing drawn by St. John of the Cross, a crucifixion “from above,” made in the 1570s. This is what John drew.

It is remarkably strange, most especially in the angles. Different from what Dalí chose to go with, but equally unusual, and now post-Dalí, certainly more so. Not only the angle of viewing, but in the off-kilterness of the cross itself. It leans backwards, lit from behind; Christ hangs forward, shadowed. Unlike Dalí, John of the Cross did not omit the nails. This drawing is small. Four inches high, three inches wide. It would stand, a cross-section, comfortably inside the human brain. Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, who had been John of the Cross for less than a decade by then, saw this in a vision and drew what he saw. Or at least, that is how we say it, when we speak of this sort of thing, how we contain the thought of someone’s mould overflowing with something raw and glowing and overheated, on the verge of shattering. There is no indication that John of the Cross intended this drawing to become public, to whatever extent that meant anything four and a half centuries ago. Dalí, too, claimed that he saw his painting in a vision, in a cosmic dream, but he would say that, wouldn’t he.

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