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Sacred Mysteries: The love poetry of John of the Cross
Christopher Howse discusses the sketch that inspired Salvador Dalí to paint Scotland’s best-loved picture

Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow has just lent its most popular painting, Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross to Atlanta for a few months. His idea of picturing Christ on the cross from above came from a sketch made by St John of the Cross in the 1570s. Dalí’s is a flawless idealisation, but St John’s (below) shows Christ dead and wounded.
The Carmelite friar St John of the Cross (1542-1591) had some training as a carpenter, but he was not a practised pictorial artist. His sketch was meant as an aide mémoire, not a work of art. It will, none the less, seem to some that his sketch, for all its awkwardness, possesses something that Dalí has lost
A vital point about the saint’s artistic sensibility is made by Peter Tyler in an impressive short book (St John of the Cross, Continuum, £14.99). For all his renaissance humanistic education, he says, the pictures that “spoke” to John “are not distinguished by 16th century technical mastery, and are often rather workaday examples of late medieval Spanish piety”.
We should, John advised in The Ascent of Mount Carmel “pay heed not to the feelings of delight or sweetness, not to the images, but to the feelings of love” that are caused by these images.
John’s well-integrated conviction was that Christians who are committed to a life of prayer should not rely on emotional experiences, let alone phenomena such as visions. Peter Tyler notes that while St Teresa of Avila, John’s friend and co-reformer, often wrote of joys, savours and delights in the spiritual life, John’s favourite words were beauty and beautiful. For him, beauty was not just visual pleasure, but took in notions of truth and clarity, which he derived from his studies of Thomas Aquinas at Salamanca university.
Yet John was no puritan suppressor of aesthetic experience. Indeed he is recognised as a leading lyric poet of the Spanish language. And his metaphor is erotic love.
In his great poems such as “En una noche oscura” he takes sexual love between a woman and a man and uses it as a language for relations between the human soul and God. If this seems surprising in a celibate friar in the era of the Spanish Inquisition, it had precedents, the model being the biblical Song of Songs. Spiritual writers such as St Bernard wrote lengthy commentaries on the Songs of Songs precisely because its erotic conventions applied so well to God and the soul.
Later writers in the Carmelite tradition drew heavily on St John of the Cross. Pope John Paul II had discovered this spirituality in the austerities of forced labour and hunger in Poland during the Second World War. As pope he worked out a theology of the body that relied on St John of the Cross in taking conjugal love as the model of relations between God and human beings.
A connected insight that Peter Tyler emphasises is the importance to St John of the Cross of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He rejects a remark by Thomas Merton, the 20th-century monastic writer, that “Zen is nothing but John of the Cross without the Christian vocabulary”. The nada of St John is not the “nothing” of Buddhism. God is not “nothing” to John, but everything, though feelings, imagination and intellect are utterly insufficient to contain him.
Moreover John’s prayer is personal – between his own person and the persons of God the Holy Trinity. The efforts of the human being at prayer are nothing, nada; God does the work. The person who acts in prayer (by the will of God the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit) is God the Son, who became a man, Jesus Christ.
Jesus’s last words recorded by St John the Evangelist (who writes of him as “glorified” at the moment of death) are Consummatum est (in the Latin with which St John of the Cross was familiar) – “It is accomplished.” John’s image of Jesus dead on the cross represents his work of atonement as the mediator who unites God and man.

Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2010

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