Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí

“The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret”.

-Salvador Dalí

The delicate balance between creativity and tradition lies at the heart of artistic expression: if there is nothing unique about a work, it has been plagiarized; if it does not appeal to something its audience knows (or knows of, or is at least capable of knowing), then it is useless. This dynamic has been especially important for painters, who for centuries strove to distinguish themselves within “schools” or “styles” that prescribed everything from subject matter to color choices. Perhaps no group of painters achieved this balance—incorporating both faithfulness to their heritage and striking originality into their work—as extraordinarily as those of Baroque and post-Baroque Spain.

That particular Spanish tradition was so strong, in fact, that it can be traced through the use of a single image over the course of centuries—an image crafted in accordance with a prevailing style, and yet distinct from other nations’ execution of that style throughout history. In painting the crucifixion of Christ as an intensely lit scene against a dark and empty background, (Christ on the Cross, 1614), Francisco Pacheco was both acting in accordance the Baroque tradition (using an extreme chiaroscuro to contrast the light of the central image against a darker field) and innovating something within that tradition (the exclusion of any other figure or landscape from the scene). The combination is remarkably effective, forcing the viewer to contemplate the juxtaposition of ultimate darkness and ultimate light: is the light that draws the image forward meant to represent the ultimate victory of the crucifixion over evil? Does the darkness symbolize the sinfulness of a world, faded to black, that would commit this act? Are we simply being asked to contemplate how all earthly matters are insignificant compared to this one sacrificial moment?

This image was so compelling, in fact, as to be repeated by great Spanish artists all the way into the twentieth century. In the decades immediately after Pacheco’s work, Francisco de Zurbarán (Christ on the Cross, 1627), Diego Velázquez (Christ on the Cross, 1632), Alonso Cano (The Crucifixion, 1638), and Jusepe de Ribera (Christ Crucified, 1643) all painted the crucifixion against empty, dark backgrounds (Velázquez and Cano were taught by Pacheco in Seville). Further into the future, Francisco de Goya would do the same in his Christ Crucified (1780). More than three hundred years after Pacheco’s death, Salvador Dalí would employ the same figure and color scheme (although with some characteristic innovations) in Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951). The longevity and consistency of this image among Spain’s great artists is all the more remarkable given how rare it is to find in the traditions of other countries (the Dutch came close, although they consistently incorporated dark and textured clouds in the background, or secondary figures in the fore).

Describing the strength of the Spanish tradition as demonstrated by this particular crucifixion scene, however, tells only part of the story, for that tradition is also one of incomparable boldness and creativity. Diego Velázquez is famed for his innovations in motion and perspective (in Las Hilanderas and Las Meninas, respectively), and is considered by some to have produced the very first impressionist painting of all time (View of the Garden of the Villa Medici). For his part, Goya is often called the first “modern artist” due to his move towards realistic presentations of individuals and civic turmoil.

And Salvador Dalí, of course, is one of the most unique artists in history, his melting clocks and bizarrely-proportioned figures looking like nothing that came before or since.

It is because of this originality that Dalí’s interpretation of his predecessor’s Baroque crucifixion scene is particularly instructive as to the relationship between tradition and innovation in artistic expression. Dalí did indeed choose to depict an intensely lit crucifixion scene against a plain dark background in the way that so many of his countrymen had done; unlike them, however, he depicted the scene as viewed from above (a perspective he borrowed from the Spanish mystic and Saint—John of the Cross—whose name he placed in the title of the work) and included beneath it a second scene of fishermen with their boat at the water’s edge (commonly understood to be based on the painter’s hometown of Port Lligat, and bringing to mind those fishers of men who had followed the figure in the crucifixion scene above them). Looked at in its totality the work is incomparable, reflecting the vision of a truly singular artist. Each of its components, however, is clearly drawn from a strong tradition that had informed Dalí ’s work and philosophy (the painter was consistently outspoken in his admiration of Velázquez, and by the time of the painting in question he had come full circle in his religious beliefs to embrace Catholicism as both a logical end of scientific inquiry and the context for the mysticism to which he aspired). Traditional Christian images (the crucifixion, the fishermen), Spain itself (Port Lligat), and the work of his country’s great masters (the intense light of the central figure against a dark and empty background) all inform the work. They are, in fact, the entirety of the work, for if all of those things are removed, there is simply a blank canvas.

The centuries-long arc from Pacheco to Dalí, then, is not simply the tale of one particular image and color scheme, nor of one country’s particular artistic tradition. It is a testament to the role of tradition in creativity: that is, even the innovative and original must draw on the true to be meaningful. No painter’s work would have importance if it did not depend on his understanding of something that existed outside of his own mind. Art of any kind should speak to something timeless, just as traditions can only become so by speaking to something timeless. Pacheco, Velázquez, Goya, and Dalí are rightly celebrated for the innovations of their works—specifically because each was intensely aware of the traditions that made those innovations worthwhile.

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