I have heard that one of the most popular paintings in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art is Salvador Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” I can see why.
Dali is one of the most famous of the surrealistic painters. By his own admission, Dali referred to his style of painting as “hand painted dream photographs.” He is such an intriguing painter because his attention to meticulous detail is set within the context of fantasy. At once he is real and unreal. The conscious blends into the unconscious. The literal and the imaginative combine. Dali draws us into his works by realism and then takes us beyond the literal into the ethereal.
In his depiction of the Last Supper, the Twelve are all dressed in stylized, monastic clothing. They are kneeling devotionally, with each head bowed in perfect symmetry. At the center of the painting is Jesus. Dali makes us wonder: is this the Jesus of history, or the mystical Christ of faith? Are they wholly different or are they one and the same? Dali poses the same question with his depiction of the table. It can be seen as an ordinary dinner table, or it can be seen as an extension of the light that fills Jesus and the landscape. Is it the dinner table confined to an upper room some 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, or is it the sacred table over which Christ presides out of eternity forever?
St. Augustine once wrote, “faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” I think that is the point Dali engenders in this painting.
The Holy Communion is both real and surreal. It begins in eternity, enters space and time in a definitive, historical way, and yet forever breaks through time into our world—wherever and whenever believers gather around the eternal table to “do this in remembrance of me.”
Appointed readings for today: Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, John 13:1-17, 31-35