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  • Writer's pictureAmr Abbas

Salvador Dalí: Between Nuclear Mysticism and Divine Icons

The intent of creating and recreating religious images and icons has been a Christian tradition for nearly as long as Christianity itself. However, while icons have gone through morbid times and have been compared to idolatry, they have also gone through evolutions. From the traditional paintings to the renaissance era during which Michelangelo took iconography to the then new school of high renaissance and realism. However, while some paintings were immediately dubbed as icons, some retained a religious background without actually becoming icons.

There are agreed upon laws in the drawing of icons. Monophysitism, the Christological doctrine upheld by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, agrees that Christ is one "person" with two natures, the divine and the human. This can be seen reflected in the works of many artists. Colors, themes, symbols, even wordings are often placed in icons with generally agreed upon terms and ideals.

It is for the above mentioned reasons that some paintings are considered paintings but not icons. Icons, as stated, are very particular, held to present a scene for veneration. Some artists were earnest to obtain more in their paintings than simply veneration. And while the schools of art have evolved and continue to, one particular artist stands out with his uncanny and unusual representation of Christian scenes, Salvador Dalí. His surrealist religious paintings and his theory of nuclear mysticism take the tradition of painting icons and religious images to a new level which is likely unseen before his days.

However, in addition to the usual and the common, there is also the intent of the artist in his paintings and what he seeks to present. In this research, the controversial Christian paintings of Salvador Dalí will be discussed in order to find whether his works can be placed within the borders of icons.

Salvador Dalí

Dalí is one of the most controversial artists of the past century. His work stirred controversy and admiration through and through. Plenty of his works are classified within the surrealist school and he has claimed that he is wholly surrealist. While he had attempted to step away from surrealism in some of his paintings, the influence of surrealism is evident in nearly all of his works. Upon narrowly avoiding expulsion from the surrealist group, Dalí claimed, “The difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist” (1).

The great influence of Catholicism on Dalí was one of the two aspects that inspired his self-dubbed style of nuclear mysticism. The other part of the great influence on his work was science which had peaked after he had seen the images of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the strands of DNA that appeared in the 1950s.

In 1958, Dalí said, “In the Surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today, the exterior world and that of physics have transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg.” (2). Surrealism, Catholicism and science had birthed the idea of nuclear mysticism in Dalí’s mind and thus he produced works that resemble Christian themes yet deviate from icons.

Nuclear Mysticism

Nuclear mysticism presents the period of Salvador Dalí’s journey as an artist. He describes it as a composition of different theories that showcase the relationship between quantum physics and the conscious mind. The different theories range from “Catalan philosophers” to “classicism, pop art and nuclear physics” (3).

The idea came to Dalí when he saw the atom and found beauty in it. He was intrigued by the fact that atoms make up everything in existence and hence his paintings have taken a different direction from that moment forth.

Nuclear mysticism or quantum mysticism is a philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics which was used to explain the phenomena of consciousness. However, whilst the idea was used to explain, it held no scientific substance and was denounced by Einstein (4). Yet, Dalí was enthralled with nuclear mysticism because of the philosophical concepts that deal with consciousness. The concept of nuclear mysticism includes several points:

  1. There is no observer separate from reality and vice versa

  2. The body is only perceived as solid matter, in essence made of energy and information

  3. The mind and body are indivisible entities

  4. Perception of reality is a learned action

  5. The body transforms along with changing thoughts

  6. Somatic reactions of the body are a product of awareness

  7. There is a fundamental consciousness or intelligence that connects everyone

  8. Time is a human perception, not a reality (4) (5) (6) (7).

It was the Catholic roots of Dalí that drove him into the beliefs of nuclear mysticism. He had produced many paintings that were influenced by nuclear mysticism after the Second World War. Some of those paintings are: The Madonna of Port Lligat, Christ of St. John of the Cross and Crucifixion formerly known as Corpus Hypercubus. In a way, Dalí influenced nuclear mysticism just as much as nuclear mysticism influenced his works.


Icons are religious works of art; however, they are not just paintings. They are sacred images used in religious devotion. Those images are often depicting Christ, Mary, saints and angels. And they are used for the veneration of those figures.

Icons have gone through several evolutions during the years. According to Christian tradition, the very first icon was the Image of Edessa. It was a miraculous act performed by Christ when He imprinted His face on a piece of cloth and sent it to King Abgar of Edessa to cure him from an illness (8).

Religious Paintings of Salvador Dalí

Dalí’s religious paintings have stirred controversy over the years. While appreciation of them continues, those paintings were never defined as Christian icons. The following section takes three paintings that have defining surrealist features and discusses their history and presents an iconographic analysis on each one of them.

The Corpus Hypercubus or Crucifixion

The Corpus Hypercubus (1954) by Salvador Dalí is one of the least traditional pieces of Christian art. Accordingly, it’s a piece of nuclear mysticism that combines Dalí’s interests in Catholicism, mathematics, science and Catalan culture. Dalí’s intention was to return to the spiritual classicism movement in his work with an exploding Christ using both classical painting techniques along with the motif of the cube in an effort to have it as a great piece of metaphysical work. Despite that, the surrealism still shows in his work. The idea of the painting emerged from metaphysical and transcendent cubism based on the Treatise on Cubic Form by Juan de Herrera.

The separation of the human level from the divine or the 4-dimensional level in the painting is presented through Gala being on the human level and Christ being on the other. According to Dalí, his version of the Crucifixion is “an affirmation of the reality of prayer in a…perplexed atomic age.” (9)

The Fourth Dimension

Dalí’s masterpiece, Corpus Hypercubus, was painted in 1954. It is one of his most popular and well-known pieces. It was later renamed the Crucifixion despite its dissimilarities from the original paintings depicting the crucifixion and could easily be presented as a non-Christian/religious painting.

Dalí was attempting to draw in the fourth dimension. There are many things to take away from that. While painting a 3-dimensional object or person is challenging in itself, Dalí attempted something even more challenging which is to depict Christ in a 4-dimensional plain. As the figure below shows, the hypercube is built from square faces of an unfolded cube. (10) (11).

Figure 2 The Tesseract or the Hypercube (A Mathematician’s Guided Tour Through Higher Dimensions, 2021)

The composition of the painting remains true to Dalí’s theory of nuclear mysticism. While he borrowed elements from classical paintings such as the drapery of the clothing, he reinvented the scene of the crucifixion completely in the painting. Through Dalí’s reinvention of the scene of the crucifixion, he showcases that religion and science coexist.

However, despite the intention of the painting, there are several aspects missing from its classical counterparts that obscure the Christian significance of it. While Christ is dressed in the classical drapes, the Crown of Thorns is not shown in the painting. Christ also looks away from the viewer in what contradicts the classical images of crucifixion. The nails are not present and the blood is not shown in there either; instead, only three cubes which should present the nails are going through Christ and their placement is inaccurate to the scene of the Crucifixion.

Aside from Christ, the depiction of the woman looking up at Christ is none other than Dalí’s wife, Gala, whom he presented as Mary Magdalene. Dalí used Gala as a model because he believed that nobility can only be inspired by a human being and he only approached nobility when he painted Gala (12).

Finally, and perhaps the most important item in the image is the tesseract which replaces the cross. The tesseract, also known as the hypercube, is what takes the painting to the fourth dimension. The hypercube is the presentation of the cross in the fourth dimension.

The significance of the hypercube for the cross is the presentation of the geometric symbol for the transcendental nature of God. It is meant to show that God exists in a space that is incomprehensible to humankind. In a way, the hypercube is similar to God whereas the cross is similar to God in His human form that is more relatable to people.

Iconographic Analysis on Corpus Hypercubus (Crucifixion)

One of the most prominent aspects of Dalí’s Crucifixion is the appearance of Christ. As previously stated, He is shown without wounds; looking away from the viewer; without the Crown of Thorns, and without the halo that is often placed around His head or entire body in some depictions. Additionally, there is a shadow cast from His figure onto the hypercube, but that is only shown in detail in the arms and not the legs. His white drapes could signify purity, but it’s not likely that it was the intention of Dalí as the entirety of the image takes leaps away from the classical.

As for the main item in the painting, the hypercube or the tesseract, it is painted in gold which could signify divinity in the 4th dimension. However, the shadow it reflects upon the chessboard ground adds weight to it despite it hovering above the ground without anything holding it up. Then there is the chessboard of the ground which could symbolize the different paths of life (13).

The sky is darkened, which could either be a presentation of the divine energies of God, a sorrowful moment or merely a suitable choice for a presentation of nuclear mysticism. Additionally, in the background, there is a mountain and, in the valley, what looks like light from a nuclear explosion. The mountain could easily be Golgotha.

Another aspect that shows the leap from classical imagery is the depiction of Gala as Mary Magdalene. Dalí uses white for Mary’s dress with a touch of green which could stand for nature.

What actually follows the tradition of icons is the size of Christ in comparison to the size of Mary Magdalene which signifies the importance of the figure as He is the center of all things.

Christ of St. John of the Cross

One of the dreamlike paintings of Dalí also depicts the crucifixion. It presents Christ on the Cross hovering in a blackened sky over a body of water with a boat and a fisherman. Whilst the painting depicts the Crucifixion, it is devoid of nails, blood and the Crown of Thorns, much like his painting of the Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). The inspiration for removing the blood, nails and the Crown of Thorns stemmed from a dream that Dalí had.

The inspiration behind the drawing came from the drawing of the 16th century Spanish friar John of the Cross, hence the name of the painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross. In Saint John’s drawing, he depicts Christ from above as shown in the following figure.

St. John of the Cross’ Drawing

St. John of the Cross was one of the most influential mystics in history whose writings have influenced a great number of people to move closer to God. However, it was his image of the Crucifixion that has influenced Dalí’s painting. Contemporary chronicles recount that St. John had a vision of Christ crucified which he then sketched out on a small piece of paper. While the sketch is rather small in size (2.25in by 1.9in), it is nothing short of genius from the perspective regarding the overwhelming emotions in seeing Christ’s hands torn from the nails as His body weighs down on the cross (14).

Dalí’s painting presents the crucifixion from an entirely different point of view than its classical counterparts. It has for that reason been dubbed as one of most enduring depictions of the crucifixion painted in the 20th century (15).

Iconographic Analysis on the Christ of St. John of the Cross

One of the most prominent things about the painting of Christ of St. John of the Cross is the depiction of Christ. Similar to his depiction of Christ in Corpus Hypercubus, Christ looks away from the viewer. In this particular painting, He looks down as if He is looking at the world from His own perspective. Another thing that contradicts the classical icons of crucifixion is the lack of nails and blood, and the Crown of Thorns is not depicted in the image. There is also no halo around Christ’s head and the motion of His fingers seems hyper-realistic but does not depict any motion that the icons depicting Christ were known for. Perhaps the only similarity with other depictions of Christ is the light that seems to shine from within Him. However, another addition that contradicts the depiction in classical icons is the shadow of Christ on the Cross. There is no light that surrounds Christ in the painting but the light within and while the black background could give a nod to divine energies, it is not likely that the intent for the blackened sky is to be the display of divine energies.

However, the image is from God the Father’s perspective, looking down at the world after His mission has been accomplished. Christ is presented in Dalí’s painting as the bridge between God the Father and mankind. There is also the depiction of the boats and the sea in a colorful hue. However, it seems that the style somewhat differs somewhat from Christ to the boats and the sea where the details in the boats and the sea are somewhat less than the details shown in the figure of Christ.

While the painting falls under the surrealist movement because of the use of two different perspective angles, the seascape being at eye-level and the bird’s eye which follows the Cross and Golgotha, Dalí had attempted to step away from surrealism.

Finally, the geometry in the painting follows the religious themes of the Holy Trinity with the triangle as shown in the following figure. Additionally, there is the circle which is Christ’s head which points out that He and His act of sacrifice is the meaning of everything in the universe. The triangle points down to earth in what Dalí depicted as God’s gift to mankind.

The Ascension of Christ

The Ascension of Christ also follows a dream that Dalí had. It also follows the theory of nuclear mysticism. In the dream, he claims to have seen the nucleus of an atom in vivid color. The nucleus is displayed in the background of the painting. Dalí believed that the true representation of the nucleus is the unification of the spirit of Christ.

There are a lot of aspects, discussed in relation to the previous paintings, showcased in this painting as well. The painting depicts the ascension of Christ from an entirely different perspective and also falls under the surrealist school.

Iconographic Analysis on The Ascension of Christ

Similar to the fashion of the previous paintings, Christ’s face is not shown in the image. The only part of His face that shows is His chin. The unusual point of view is perhaps what stands out the most in the figure of Christ in the image. He is wearing the drapes that are seen in Dalí’s impression of Him throughout the three paintings. Additionally, Christ’s arms are spread and He is not signaling with his fingers; but rather there appears to be stress on the arms and the fingers. Christ’s feet point out at the viewer.

Around Christ, the atom is painted, looking like a sun or a halo around the body of Christ with the nodes in the center of the atom. The religious motif of the halo being presented as the atom fits quite well with Dalí’s nuclear mysticism theory. Additionally, the atom looks like it’s splitting with the other circle or the other part of it in front of Gala. Christ centers the atom or the splitting atom. On the upper side, the circle is gray unlike the goldish yellow of the bottom full circle. It seems as if the rays of the divine are shining through the clouds and a much smaller figure tops the upper circle which looks like early depictions of the Holy Spirit.

Gala also makes an appearance in the painting with tearful eyes. Her appearance is one of the most emotionally striking aspects of the painting altogether. Additionally, to add to the scene of sorrow, the scene below the figure of Christ is a darkened sky over the sea and by Christ and Gala, it looks as if there is an explosion erupting around them; which could be a representation of the atomic bombing. However, through the clouds of the explosion around the arms of Christ, there are two colors: yellow and red with the latter being the overwhelming color. This could be a presentation of blood which is perhaps the strangest part of the image given that Dalí did not present the blood of Christ in the majority of his religious paintings.

The use of geometry is evident in the image, too, where Christ’s arms and feet form a triangle to symbolize the Trinity. Finally, the most peculiar aspect of the drawing which places it in the surrealist school is the use of different points of view. If one takes a close look at the background of the painting, it could easily be interpreted as a presentation of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which would be the first point of view. The second point of view is from the bottom of Christ’s feet. The third is from the top of Gala’s head.

The Criterion of Christian Icons

The difference between icons and other religious paintings can be perceived in many aspects of said paintings. The painter or artist performs an act of worship through painting the images and scenes from Christianity (16). While there have been different stages of painting icons, there have also been several levels that set the criterion of painting icons in contrast to other religious paintings. For instance, icons are often found in places of worship; there are no signatures provided in them, but sometimes the artists would sign on the backs of the paintings.

Other aspects such as the presentation of Christ play an important part in icons as opposed to other religious paintings and artworks. The nature of Christ is often depicted in the human form rather than the divine one with many exceptions. Sacred space and sacred time are also present in those icons.

Sacred Time and Space

Time and space are not pure forms, but rather they exist objectively and they are a measure of existence. They are human concepts to begin with and God does not abide by their limitations.

In order to understand the concept of sacred time, it should be understood that there are different forms of time; specifically, three forms of time. Those forms are

  1. The cyclical, which relates to the stars and planets

  2. The historical, which relates to events of time and eras and goes on indefinitely

  3. The existential, where each instant can open up from the inside to another dimension

Christ is the fulfillment of time; He is the axis of time. In other words, time had found its axis in Christ, for before him, it moved towards Him, and after Him, it was fulfilled rather than destroyed.

Sacred time relates to Christ being ever-present. For Christ is the Tree of Life that touches the heavens with its top and the bridge that connects Heaven to earth. While Golgotha is the center of the world according to Christian tradition, Christ is the everywhere and nowhere at once (17).

The Nature of Christ

While there are two natures of Christ, it is argued that only one of them could be represented and replicated in icons and that is His human nature. The monophysitism refers to the two natures of Christ within His singular person. Earlier depictions of Christ often presented His divine nature, or the duality of His nature; even some images have presented God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all at once.


It is difficult to claim that the paintings of Salvador Dalí can fall under the categorization of being icons. They are indeed religious paintings following a certain criterion that deviates from the iconographic tradition.

There are, however, a few things that could be said in defense to place Salvador Dalí’s paintings in the terms of icons. For instance, while it may not have been the artist’s intent, the evident use of sacred time and space sheds a light on the paintings from a different perspective. Sacred time is present in both the Ascension of Christ and Christ of St. John of the Cross as both paintings show Christ at the time of the atomic bombing simultaneously with the time of the Crucifixion and Ascension. Additionally, sacred space is also showcased from a surrealist point of view in all three paintings where Christ exists in two or more places at the same time in both the Ascension and Christ of St. John of the Cross. However, it is in the Corpus Hypercubus that sacred space is taken to a level not seen before where Christ exists in a plain of existence incomprehensible to the human mind.

Bearing all of that in mind, it remains rather difficult to categorize the paintings of Salvador Dalí as icons given the rather strict criterion of icons. Dalí presents a divine embodiment of Christ rather than presenting Him in His human nature. While this is never truly expressed, it is evident through the lack of blood and wounds on the body of Christ especially in the scenes of the Crucifixion.

As Golgotha is shown in the background of the paintings, these paintings were not void of Gala’s image. While Gala in the Ascension could provide depth into the idea of sacred time, it stands within reason to say that deviating so far from the tradition can take away from the painting being presented as an icon. And while the presentation of Gala as Mary Magdalene cannot be identified as much of a deviation from tradition, the entirety of the painting Corpus Hypercubus is, in itself, a deviation from tradition.

Finally, while the paintings are nothing short of religious, the more ambiguous motifs of Dalí’s nuclear mysticism prevent them from being icons to be venerated. They strike a thought that can also deviate from the religious by a large margin. All in all, it would be difficult to place those paintings in a place of worship.

Written by Amr Abbas.


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(11) Banchoff, T. F. (1990). Beyond the Third Dimension. Scientific American Library.

(12) Coppens, P. (2016, 10 28). Salvador Dalí: Painting in the fourth dimension. Retrieved fromí/

(13) Sonneveld, R. (2013, September 29). A Four-dimensional Jesus . Retrieved from Artway:

(14) Colina, J. (2017, 09 22). Discover the crucifix drawn by St. John of the Cross after a mystical vision. Retrieved from Aleteia:

(15) Jones, J. (2009). Kitsch and lurid but also a glimpse of a strange soul. The Guardian.

(16) Hart, A. (2019). Painting Icons as Prayer. Retrieved from

(17) Evdokimov, P. (1989). The Art of the Icon. California: Oakwood Publications.


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