Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was a Spanish surrealist painter known for the eccentric and striking images in his work. In 1946, Dali was invited to participate in a painting competition organized by a movie-producing firm called the Loew Lewin Company. The winner of the eleven person competition would have his or her painting
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Max Ernst

worked into an upcoming feature film. After a few days of work in a New York studio, Dali submitted The Temptation of Saint Anthony as his entry. It was the first and only time Salvador Dali participated in an art contest. He lost to Max Ernst, a German artist and innovator of the Dada movement.

Salvador Dali’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony depicts the temptations Saint Anthony the Great reportedly faced during his pilgrimage to the desert. As told by Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony renounced his worldly possessions in the 3rd Century. He traveled to the Arabian Desert to live alone and strengthen his faith. While on his pilgrimage, Anthony repeated prayers as Satan attempted to tempt him. In Salvador Dali’s version of the tale, Saint Anthony is walking through the desert when he is confronted by a giant horse and five elephants.

Salvador Dali's The Temptation of Saint Anthony

At Point 1, Saint Anthony is dwarfed and confined in bottom left corner of the painting by the approaching monsters. The negative space around Saint Anthony and in the foreground shows the distance from the temptation in front of him. Saint Anthony is kneeling, a posture of submission. He has shorn his clothing and raised his hand toward the oncoming parade of temptation. Is his nude, kneeling body in submission to the temptations or to his unseen savior? The cross, a common symbol of Christianity, in his extended hand seems to indicate the strength and will in his faith.

At the front of the line of temptations is a monstrous white horse at Point 2. The horse is a symbol of strength, yet it seems frightened by the small body of Saint Anthony. Does this imply that the strength of Saint Anthony and his faith are enough to combat temptation? The position of the horse indicates it may also symbolize something else. The horse is up on its hind legs exposing its undercarriage. Its mane looks like flames of a fire, representing the fiery passion of sex. The muscular body of the horse can also represent a female’s voluptuousness. This is reinforced by the horse’s gaze at the nude woman’s breasts at Point 4.

The elephants in Salvador Dali’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony have long, spindly, fragile legs. As the legs of Dali’s elephants extend higher and higher, they symbolize man’s desire to excel. However, as the feet of the gargantuan beasts are planted on the ground so are the dreams of man planted in reality. While a common symbol in Dali’s work, the elephants were not completely original. They were highly influenced by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a famous Italian artist who was often commissioned by the papacy.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Pulcino della Minerva

Specifically, Dali’s elephants resemble Bernini’s The Pulcino della Minerva. The famous elephant sculpture is one of eleven Egyptian obelisks in Rome. The Temptation of Saint Anthony was not the first time Dali used the Bernini-inspired elephants.

Salvador Dali's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening

One first appeared in the background of his 1944 painting Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening.

Salvador Dali's The Temptation of Saint Anthony
The elephants are following the horse in Dali's The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Behind the horse, the first elephant stands at Point 3. This first elephant is carrying on its back a golden cup, a symbol of fertility and lust, on which a nude woman stands at Point 4. The angle of the nude woman implies her footing is unstable, showing the precarious nature between fertility and lust among women.

The other elephants are carrying various buildings. The elephants at Point 5 and Point 7 are each carrying an obelisk, a phallic symbol,
Andrea Palladio's Basilica Palladiana
directly in reference to Bernini’s The Pulcino della Minerva. The obelisk in the background at Point 7 most closely resembles Bernini’s original work. What is the meaning of the direct reference to Bernini covered in the background by clouds? The two elephants at Point 6 are carrying a Palladio-style palace at Point 8. Andrea Palladio was a Venetian architect who, like Bernini, was commissioned for religious art. Salvador Dali associates the work of these two religious artists to the elephants of temptation. Are the direct references to these influential artists a comment on the artists, religious architecture, or religion itself?

At Point 9, the clouds are dark and ominous. Hidden among the clouds is The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, more
El Escorial
commonly called El Escorial. Historically, it was the residence of the king of Spain until 1861. It was also at the same time a predominant monastery for the Catholic Church. For many living in Spain, El Escorial represented Spain’s former prosperity and honor due to its historical past. Since El Escorial comprised both government and religion, it symbolized temporal and spiritual order. In Dali’s painting, the building can only barely be made out among the foreboding clouds. Does the lack of visibility of El Escorial mean that it is being consumed by temptation or resisting it? Is El Escorial a larger symbol for the country of Spain?

Salvador Dali’s 1946 painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony is ambiguous as to whether or not it is positive toward Christianity. The painting has an overall dark tone. Saint Anthony’s nude body adds to the sexual overtones of the painting, implying that he may have succumbed to temptation. However, the dramatic reaction of the horse to the raised cross implies Saint Anthony is able to ward off temptation with his faith. How are we to respond to this?

Salvador Dali's The Temptation of Saint Anthony