One day during the years when Fray John of the Cross was chaplain at the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, probably between 1574 and 1577, he was praying in a loft overlooking the sanctuary. Suddenly he received a vision. Taking a pen he sketched on a small piece of paper what he had beheld.
The sketch is of Christ crucified, hanging in space, turned toward his people, and seen from a new perspective. The cross is erect. The body, lifeless and contorted, with the head bent over, hangs forward so that the arms are held only by the nails. Christ is seen from above, from the view of the Father. He is more worm than man, weighed down by the sins of human beings, leaning toward the world for which he died. John, who was to write so many cautions against visions and images, later gave the pen sketch to one of his devout penitents at the Incarnation, Ana María de Jesús. She guarded it until the time of her death in 1618, when she gave it to María Pinel who was later to become prioress.
In 1641, at the time of Madre María’s death, the drawing was placed in a small monstrance, elliptical in shape, where it was conserved until 1968. It was then sent for study and restoration to the Central Institute in Madrid for the conservation and restoration of works of art. Now restored and provided with a new reliquary, it is once more available for all to see at the Incarnation in Avila. The French Carmelite biographer of St. John of the Cross, Bruno de Jésus-Marie, in 1945 and 1950 discussed the drawing with two renowned Spanish painters of the twentieth century, José María Sert and Salvador Dalí. The former turned the drawing sideways and interpreted the work to represent the cross leaning forward like a crucifix pressed to the lips of a dying man. Christ is seen then as dragging away from it, his arms stretched almost to the breaking point, his head bent. However, careful study of the drawing has since demonstrated that John’s crucified Christ is in a vertical position.
Dalí, in turn, was inspired to do a painting from a similar perspective, “The Christ of St. John of the Cross. ” In Dalí’s painting, in contrast to John’s original drawing, the crucified body reminds one more of a Greek god than of the suffering servant. René Huyghe, once Conservator-in-Chief of the paintings in the Museum of the Louvre, wrote concerning the Spanish Carmelite’s drawing:
Saint John of the Cross escapes right out of those visual habits by which all artists form a part of their period. He knows nothing of the rules and limitations of contemporary vision; he is not dependent on the manner of seeing current in his century; he is dependent on nothing but the object of his contemplation….The vertical perspective – bold, almost violent, emphasized by light and shade – in which he caught his Christ on the cross cannot be matched in contemporary art; in the context of that art it is hardly imaginable.
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