Dali's Great Secret

\\ Text Maria Cruz (com a colaboração de Tiago Feijóo)
\\ Photography Direitos Reservados

At the age of 55 years (1959), Salvador Dalí – the Spanish surrealist – found himself spiritually trapped between atheism and belief in God (his father was an atheist and his mother a catholic), to the point where he wrote in his autobiography «Heaven is to be found exactly in the centre of the bosom of the man who has faith». «At this moment I do not yet have faith, and I fear I shall die without heaven», he added. At the time, Salvador Dalí was invited by John Haffert, co-founder and director of the World Apostolate of Fátima (also known as the Blue Army) to paint an image of the first vision seen in 1917 by the shepherd children of Fátima. And the work, painted on canvas, The Vision of Hell, later became part of the history of humanity.  

Photo-Shopped: The Vision of Hell over the painting of Dalí


\\ Photography Direitos Reservados

Painting this work meant that Dalí spent some time with canon José Galamba, and, afterwards, he spoke with Sister Lúcia, the only shepherd child alive at that time. Following this time spent in Fátima, Dalí became more religious. According to the words of Nicolas Descharnes, an expert in Dalí, he converted, but «hid it from people in his circle», and only his nearest and dearest (his wife and his aristocrat friends) knew of this. This was Dalí’s Secret. Proof of this can be seen in the constant increase, about 400%, in religious works created by the painter, after having finished The Vision of Hell in 1962. Dalí portrayed the vision using the account and the memories of Sister Lúcia, and, in its final form, the painting gained in colour and power. «The difficulty he had in painting this vision shows the massive importance of the painting», said Carlos Evaristo, Fátima historian and president of the Fundação Histórica Cultural Oureana in Fátima, at that time, founded by John Haffert to study the history of Portugal. 

Dalí presents the final painting to Father Colgan


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When Dalí was welcomed by José Galamba, he was so excited that he told him: «Imagine, the earth opened up right here and the children saw hell». After his meeting with Sister Lúcia, Dalí confessed to Father José. Subsequently he returned to Port Lligat, in Spain, where he painted, in secret, The Vision of Hell. But nobody saw the painting until it was presented to Monsignor Harold Colgan, founder of the Blue Army, and there is an image (image 1) that portrays this moment in which Dalí, wide-eyed, is looking at the priest’s face, who is surprised by what he sees. This was how this painting was received. Few were those who liked the painting at the Sanctuary of Fátima. As the painting didn’t attract much attention, Haffert hung the work in his office in New Jersey, later in the apostolate and after that in the Blue Army in New Jersey, where he placed it under the bed of a nun. There it lay forgotten for almost 30 years, until it was discovered in 1997, and, a few years later, was sold to an art collector. Dalí divided his life between art friends and those he went to church with. This is how it became Dalí’s Greatest Secret.

Only in 2012, when Paul Perry began researching the painting, did the meaning of the work and Dalí’s Secret come to light. As Perry explained when interviewed, which you can read later in this report, «It was surprising to see that so many people were expecting hell to appear an attractive place». But Perry didn’t just stop there. He started researching on the effect of this work on Dalí and documented, in film, some of the events, through testimonies of people, still living, who knew the artist, while consulting the Blue Army and the archives of John Haffert. The filmmaker used some photos that had been supplied to him, in which you can see Dalí attending church. The result of the painting The Vision of Hell brings us to the image of fear, of hope, of anguish and of mystery. The presence of the Blessed Virgin in the top right corner of the work transmits purity, peace, in the heart of hell. Considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Dalí found God almost by chance. 

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