Madonna of Portlligat

Salvador Dalí

Spain (1904 - 1989)
Madonna of Portlligat, 1949
oil on canvas
49.5 x 38.3 cm
Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ira Haupt, 59.9.
© Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí/ SODRAC (2014)

Between 1930 and 1982, Salvador Dalí lived and found inspiration in Portlligat, a small Spanish fishing village on the country’s northeast coast, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. In Madonna of Portlligat, Dalí represents a distinctly classical subject in a way that is thoroughly modern. The artist modelled this painting after the Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca’s fifteenth-century masterwork the Montefeltro Altarpiece. Mary’s pose in Dalí’s painting is nearly identical to that in Piero’s. The arch, shell, and dangling egg in Dalí’s painting also have clear precedents in the older work.

Dalí’s wife Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, or simply “Gala,” is depicted as the Virgin, floating above the bay at Portlligat. Her body, hollowed out for the Christ Child, is flanked by various objects that hover in an ethereal state of suspension. Each seemingly random element in this painting enjoys rich symbolic significance within Christianity. The ostrich egg is a traditional symbol of the Virgin Birth—during the Renaissance it was believed that the ostrich allowed its eggs to hatch in the sunlight without the intervention of the bird. The seashell refers to Aphrodite (or Venus), a Greco-Roman deity whose association with fertility was supplanted by the Madonna with the advent of Christianity. The suspended state of the various objects and symbols draws reference to the experience of mystical ecstasy, which according to the Roman Catholic tradition Dalí embraced was often accompanied by bodily levitation.

In November, 1949, Dalí was granted a special audience with Pope Pius XII who reportedly blessed this, the first version of Madonna of Portlligat. Dalí completed a second, larger version of this painting in 1950, currently at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan.