Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations for The Bible (1963)

Some might have tak­en offense when Sal­vador Dalí began illus­trat­ing the Bible in 1963. The noto­ri­ous Sur­re­al­ist “went to jail for his art­works as a young man,” writes Jack­son Arn writes at Art­sy, but he “lived long enough to lend his leg­endary panache to Hol­ly­wood movies and Alka-Seltzer com­mer­cials.” Along the way, he gained a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing a rather vicious char­ac­ter. George Orwell, review­ing Dalí’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, described him as “dis­gust­ing” for his fanat­i­cal harass­ment and abuse of oth­er peo­ple. But, Orwell went on, “Dalí is a draughts­man of very excep­tion­al gifts. He is also, to judge by the minute­ness and the sure­ness of his draw­ings, a very hard work­er…. He has fifty times more tal­ent than most of the peo­ple who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paint­ings.”

Dalí hard­ly need­ed the defense of his morals or his paint­ings, nor might he have want­ed it. That was the wrong sort of atten­tion. But maybe he him­self was sur­prised by a lat­er career turn as an illus­tra­tor of respectable “Great Books”—including not only Judeo-Chris­t­ian scrip­ture, but also Don Quixote, Mac­beth, The Divine Com­e­dy, Alice in Won­der­land, and much more.

The artist who seemed to have noth­ing but con­tempt for tra­di­tion­al canons approached these projects with the skill and pro­fes­sion­al­ism Orwell couldn’t help but admire, as well as sub­tleties and under­stat­ed tonal shifts we might not have asso­ci­at­ed with his work.

These are not his first reli­gious sub­jects; he had always ref­er­enced big scenes and broad themes in Catholi­cism. But the illus­tra­tions rep­re­sent a deep­er engage­ment with the pri­ma­ry text—105 paint­ings in all, each based on select pas­sages from the Latin Vul­gate Bible. Pub­lished by Riz­zoli in 1969, Bib­lia Sacra (The Sacred Bible) was com­mis­sioned by Dalí’s friend, Dr. Guiseppe Albare­to, a devout Catholic whose inten­tion “for this mas­sive under­tak­ing,” writes the Lock­port St. Gallery, “was to bring the artist back to his reli­gious roots.” What­ev­er effect that might have had, Dalí approach­es the project with the same dili­gence evi­dent in his oth­er illustrations—he takes artis­tic risks while mak­ing a sin­cere effort to stay close to the spir­it of the text. If he did this work for the mon­ey, he earned it.

Dalí’s illus­tra­tions “aren’t some kind of sub­ver­sive prank,” writes Arn. “The lumi­nous water­col­ors he pro­duced for the Bible are, in the main, earnest ren­der­ings of their sacred sub­jects.” Per­haps the book illus­tra­tions have attract­ed so lit­tle atten­tion from art his­to­ri­ans because they lack the sen­sa­tion­al­ism and out­rage Dalí aggres­sive­ly cul­ti­vat­ed in his pub­lic per­sona. Maybe these paint­ings, as Ger­man gal­lerist Hol­ger Kemp­kens puts it, show “some­thing of a spir­i­tu­al side of Dalí.” Or maybe they just add to a big­ger pic­ture that shows what he could do with nar­ra­tives not of his own mak­ing, but which he clear­ly respect­ed and found chal­leng­ing and stim­u­lat­ing. These qual­i­ties apply to many parts of the Bible as well as to great lit­er­ary epics, includ­ing those based on the Bible, like John Milton’s Par­adise Lost, which Dalí illus­trat­ed in a series of sur­pris­ing­ly spare, ele­gant etch­ings.

You can buy an orig­i­nal set of Dalí’s illus­trat­ed Bible in five vol­umes from The Lock­port Street Gallery (email for a price and con­di­tion report); buy a more afford­able book online that fea­tures and explores Dalí’s illus­tra­tions; or see all 105 of Dalí’s Bib­li­cal illus­tra­tions (and pur­chase some 1967 prints) at Art­sy.

via Art­sy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Tarot Card Deck Designed by Sal­vador Dalí

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Illus­trat­ed by Sal­vador Dalí in 1969, Final­ly Gets Reis­sued

Sal­vador Dalí’s Haunt­ing 1975 Illus­tra­tions for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juli­et

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.