Salvador Dali is considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and the most famous Surrealist. At the height of his popularity in 1960, he was commissioned by The Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima to paint the Vision of Hell, as Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco experienced during the July 13, 1917, apparition at Fatima. The idea for the painting came from a Protestant who, having read about the vision from Sister Lucia’s memoirs, converted to Catholicism and entered the seminary. The thought was that Dali could reach young people and unbelievers far more effectively with this message than any sermon on Sunday morning or story about saints. This commission would change Dali’s life and work, and lead him from his avowed atheism back to his Catholic roots.
Dali grew up in Spain near the border of France in Catalonia. His father was an anti-clerical, atheist and his mother a devout Roman Catholic. Born just nine months after his brother, also Salvador, died, he was often told by his parents that he was his reincarnated brother. Having to juggle between the influences of belief and unbelief in God, Dali grew up confused and uncertain, stating once, “Heaven is to be found exactly in the center 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.”
Dali’s fame grew throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and he became an immediate sensation in the U.S. after his first exhibition there in 1934. His famous painting, The Persistence in Memory, with the image of melting pocket watches, helped define his method of creativity and surrealism, the “paranoiac-critical method.” Dali’s creativity arose from images he drew from the subconscious as he fell into a state of semi-wakefulness, or hypnogogy.
Throughout his life, Dali struggled with the idea of his own death, a fear he could not overcome. He studied new discoveries related to the third dimension, which led him to seek access to the fourth dimension and immortality. His works are permeated with themes of eroticism, death and decay, but also religious themes and subjects related to scientific progress.
He was 55 when he was approached by The Blue Army to paint the Vision of Hell. Blue Army co-founder John Haffert had received a letter from the seminarian encouraging him to approach Dali with the idea. He also put up his life’s savings to pay for it. Haffert met with Dali in the New York hotel where he was staying and told him about The Blue Army’s mission to spread the message of Fatima. He read him the story of Fatima from Lucia’s writings and the description of the Vision of Hell.”It’s up to you to present this Vision truthfully and vividly,” Haffert told him. “You are being chosen to be Our Lady’s artist. A visual interpreter for God.”
Dali listened intently, then ordered a plate of escargot. When it arrived, he began to probe the snails with escargot forks, explaining to Haffert that the great artists always used pitchforks to depict the devils in hell, but he would use escargot forks instead. “The soul of a sinner is like a snail,” he explained. “It curls and cowls up in the shell and the only way to retrieve it is by using an escargot fork!”
The two of them settled on a commission fee and signed an agreement on a paper napkin.
Haffert set out to try to get a meeting between Dali and Sister Lucia, who in 1960 was a cloistered Carmelite nun in Coimbra, Portugal. He was not having any success, even after writing to her personally. Dali told Haffert it was no problem. He would study what she said about the Vision and put together his own vision, telling him, “I will paint what I see.”
For over a year, Dali poured over Lucia’s description of the Vision of Hell and searched his subconscious for imagery, to no avail. Haffert suggested he go to Fatima for inspiration. Part of Dali’s problem was he did not know how to present the Blessed Virgin Mary. His wife, Gala, was always the face of the women in his paintings.
At Fatima, he was brought directly to the spot where the Blessed Mother appeared and where the children saw the earth open revealing hell. The key to understanding the Vision of Hell, he was told by his guide, Canon Jose Galamba de Oliveira, was the appeal for conversion. And the Immaculate Heart of Mary is sign of hope for all who respond to her message of conversion.
Through Galamba’s influence, Dali was finally able to meet with Sister Lucia during this trip. He spent a short time with her, conversing through the bars of the parlor grill. Dali would later comment how special it felt to “breath the same air as a future saint,” like being in a heavenly presence. Dali finally had the inspiration to paint the Vision of Hell.
Before leaving Fatima, Dali asked Canon Galamba to hear his confession. Galamba later told Haffert, it was “the most moving, sincere and profound confession” he had ever heard in his many decades as a priest.
On March 13, 1962, Haffert received notice that the painting was finished and Mr. Dali wanted to present it to him. He was not able to be there at the time, but Msgr. Harold Colgan, Haffert’s co-founder of The Blue Army, went in his stead. From the look on his face when the painting was revealed, Msgr. Colgan was shocked at the Vision according to Dali. It was not what he expected.
However, upon further study and examination, it is believed that Dali portrayed himself in the vision and painted his own conversion. It shows a dying person, his soul translucent red, tortured and tormented by demons in hell who probe him with escargot forks, trying to extract his soul. The fissured earth opens beneath to the place of hell. The Blessed Mother above, in anguish, revealing her sorrowful and loving heart before the horror of a soul being lost. A lone figure holds up a crucifix to heaven in prayer.
The Fatima children said they would have died of fright at the Vision of Hell if Mary had not been with them. She told the children, “You have seen hell where the souls of sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” During the August apparition, she implored them, “Pray, pray very much, for many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray for them.”
No one knows what Sister Lucia said to Dali after his brief visit with her, but she had a knack for saying exactly what someone needed to hear to return to God, including hardened Communists. She must have helped him know the love of God and the Blessed Mother as well, and that her Immaculate Heart is a refuge for sinners. Dali did not use Gala as his model for the face of Mary in his picture. He returned to his Catholic roots and belief in God and faced his mortality.
When Sister Lucia finally saw his painting of the Vision in 1997, she studied it intently, then said to her interpreter, “Hell is spiritual and not physical, and it is impossible for anyone to make an image of hell. The painting comes as close as humanly possible to representing hell.”
Salvador Dali died of heart failure on January 23, in 1989, at the age of 84. He kept his religious sentiments secret from the world. Sister Lucia must surely have prayed for him.