Salvador Dalí's The Madonna of Port Lligat depicts an image of Mary holding baby Jesus in her lap. However it has layers upon layers of meaning. For example symbolism that looks forward to Easter - the Crucifixion and birth of new life. It is also a deeply personal image, based on Dalí's wife and showing his hometown in Spain.
Spot the difference
There are two versions of Dalí's The Madonna of Port Ligat. One lives in America and the other lives in Japan. Together they are a captivating game of spot-the-difference and guess-the-meaning.
The first is small (49 x 37.5 cm) and when the second was created, a year later in 1950, it had swollen in size (275.3 x 209.8 cm) and detail. Together the two create a sort of animation.
As if the first altar scene slowly rumbles backwards and elements of the painting move or grow, and new aspects emerge. Madonna’s clothes get disturbed, as she moves her foot out; the altar both grows (the bottom part raising upwards) and decays; and the sea urchin (a symbol of fertility, a flower of the sea) shrinks, splits and falls. The clouds roll in and the colour palette darkens.
The images of fertility abound in the second painting. There are now numerous women present. Two cuttlefish morph into three women, or possibly angels, hovering above the sea.
If you look closely the deep red curtain in the top right, and silvery shape in the bottom right alcove, both resemble female faces. The women in the painting are in fact one woman, Dalí ’s wife Gala. Port Lligat was their home in Spain and she is the Madonna. This idea is interesting because it was well known that Gala had a colourful sexual life while Dalí claimed to be the virgin.
The first Madonna is the visual focal point of her painting, while the second is not. In the second painting your eye is first drawn to Jesus, and then around the myriad details of the painting. In the second painting both Madonna and Christ now have rectangular holes in their chests.
The body of Christ
While Christ is what fills the torso of Madonna, broken bread, which is known as “the body of Christ” in the Christian Eucharist, fills Christ’s. The landscape is the next layer of meaning. In the second version of the scene, the background gives a vision of the cross. The horizon line at halfway with the contrast of still and stormy skies comes together with the prominent shadows from the two island. This careful balancing juxtaposes sea and sky - heaven and earth. In Christianity, Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth - just as Dali’s painting literally depicts.
An Easter Egg!
In both paintings the objects that surround the Madonna and Child enhance the painting’s mediation on the religious themes. A shell, reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus (who is another divine figure born without sex), is the origin of a fine thread. This thread allows an egg to hover prominently amid storm clouds and between the gap at the top of the altar.
The egg is a smooth white ostrich egg, another symbol of purity and virgin birth - because of the medieval myth that the ostrich eggs were hatched by sunlight.
To read here more about eggs in art!
The shell and egg are aligned with the sheath of wheat and the rose, which hover vertically at the bottom of the altar. The wheat links to the other pieces of bread in the image: the body of Christ and the basket that sits on the lower part of the altar.
These images align with the altar to create the sign of the cross, which is completed by Christ’s outstretched arms and the line dividing heaven and earth.
The crucifixion is also referenced by the long nail that is affixed to the left side of the altar. From this, a second thread suspends a piece of decaying meat. The new curtains that hang at the top corners could also be an allusion to the event of the temple curtain splitting at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross.
To read more about Dalí and surrealism why not read one of the following articles: