Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Seven Sacraments of Nicholas Poussin

The textbooks usually describe very Protestant Rembrandt as the great Black Sheep of Baroque art, and yet, a case could be made for Nicholas Poussin to claim that title. He was probably the only painter in Europe who had no interest in chasing after the star of Peter Paul Rubens, every other 17th century painter's model of success. He spent most of his working life in Rome, in a city full of Catholic revival, new construction, and artists competing ferociously for big public commissions. Poussin wanted none of it. He shunned big public commissions that other artists would have killed each other for. He greeted news that King Louis XIII wanted him to return to Paris to be painter to the King with dismay, and used his wife's illness as an excuse to escape the royal embrace and hurry back to Rome. I can't imagine any other artist of the 17th century behaving like that. He worked most of his professional life for a small circle of enthusiastic patrons who were also close friends. They were all very learned scholarly men who held administrative posts either with the Papal court, or with the French diplomatic mission to the Holy See. Together, they encouraged Poussin to enjoy a measure of independence allowed to probably no other artist in Europe at the time, including Rembrandt.

Poussin was very much out of step with the art of Baroque Rome. Instead of huge spectacular altarpieces, he painted mostly standard sized easel pictures. Poussin loathed the ingratiating theatricality of Baroque art, the rolling eyes, the swoons, the agony, the ecstasy, the sunbursts, the theatrical shadows, the tears, the blood, etc. Baroque art was about thrilling a huge public with amazing dramatic spectacles intended to dazzle any kind of thoughtful reflection into oblivion. Poussin thought that was the problem with Baroque art, it was all spectacle and no substance (or that substance so frequently was upstaged). Poussin believed that painting should stir thought and engage the moral sense, not dazzle us into thoughtless submission. He went out of his way to purge anything like the ingratiating qualities of Baroque art out of his work. He deliberately avoided the embrace of the broad public. The late Sir Kenneth Clark described Poussin as a "fighting highbrow," and indeed he was. His work was intended for a small sympathetic audience of well read and thoughtful people willing to meet the demands that Poussin's art makes from us. Despite his best efforts, his work became popular, especially in his native France, where he influenced generations of artists from Jacques Louis David to Paul Cezanne.

One of the finest examples of that independence of mind, and the uncompromising intellectualism of Poussin's work is his series of paintings, The Seven Sacraments. He first painted a series of Seven Sacraments for his close friend, the Papal Librarian, Cassiano dal Pozzo from 1637 to 1640. He painted a much finer second series for his other close friend, the French ambassador to the Papal Court, Paul Freart de Chantelou from 1644 to 1648. It is this second series that I reproduce here. These paintings were all made in Rome and shipped to Paris immediately upon completion. Remarkably, Poussin never saw these paintings together, and yet they are so beautifully conceived and designed to be a unified set.

The Seven Sacraments was an invention of North European art. The most famous example prior to Poussin is Rogier Van der Weyden's famous altarpiece. This subject is very unusual in Italian art. I cannot think of any other version of The Seven Sacraments that treats the subject in seven separate panels, and for a private patron rather than for a public church setting. But that is not all that is unusual and original about Poussin's approach to this theme.

Earlier artists. like Rogier Van der Weyden, showed the Sacraments taking place in church among people more or less contemporary with the artist. A priest usually baptized infants and small children at a font. Poussin illustrates five of the seven sacraments with episodes from the New Testament, thus moving them to a more general level of consideration, demanding that we think about their meaning as well as their origins. Christ submits to John's baptism before a crowd of people of widely varying ages and types. On the right, a group of people ranging in age from infants to the elderly await baptism. On the left, those who've already undergone the ritual put their clothes back on. Poussin minimizes the visionary aspects of the event. There are no angels, no rending of the sky, only the dove of the Holy Spirit. Various people throughout the picture seem to note its presence and hear the voice from Heaven. On the left in the back, a small skeptical looking group watches the baptism thoughtfully. They are sometimes identified as Scribes and Pharisees, but they may simply be curious and puzzled.
This is a beautiful example of the formal integration of figures and setting into a single unified composition which Cezanne so admired about Poussin's work. The Baptist's gesture extending his right arm with the cup is repeated formally throughout the painting. It has a counter-echo in the man pulling on his stockings in the lower left. The Baptist's gesture gets a more sweeping echo in the landscape behind where the broad hill slopes downward to the left across the whole picture. A dark hill right above Christ and behind the Dove significantly forms the highest point in the picture. A small ruin with palms of martyrdom stands above the Baptist. Small groves of trees echo the groupings of people.

detail from Baptism

Poussin sets this scene, neither in the New Testament or in a contemporary church, but in the early Christian community of ancient Rome. It takes place in a dark completely enclosed place which some scholars identify as a catacomb. I think Poussin had the Rome of Constantine in mind, setting this scene in a Christian mausoleum. As other scholars have pointed out, Poussin went to great lengths to accurately show these people in the costume of late Imperial Rome.
Poussin sets this scene at night on Holy Saturday during Easter Vigil. A man lights a candle from the Paschal Candle on the altar to the left. A young acolyte sprinkles people with water from a branch of hyssop, a ritual borrowed by early Christians from Judaism. A bishop seated before the altar on the left and attended by a kneeling acolyte anoints a man. In the background, a priest ties a fillet around the head of a newly anointed boy. It is a little hard to see in the darkness of this reproduction, but behind them is a large stone basin between two sarcophagi with lamps burning before them. Poussin and his circle enthusiastically studied early Christian archaeology. They knew that baptism in the days of the early Church was by full immersion, and that Baptism and Confirmation were available to people of all ages, and not just infants. The burning lamps hanging before tombs (presumably of saints) also was an early Christian practice. Almost invisible in this reproduction, through an open door in the center of the picture, right above the basin, another tiny lamp burns above a shrouded corpse. The proximity of Confirmation and Baptism with death is no accident. Both of these initiation rites are about dying to the old life and birth into a new life.

detail from Confirmation showing the large Baptismal basin and the shrouded corpse through the door behind.

detail of Confirmation showing a bishop chrismating a confirmand

Poussin illustrates this sacrament with a familiar story from the Gospels, the feast in the house of Levi. Christ was invited to a feast in the house of the priest Levi, where a penitent woman (once traditionally identified as Mary Magdalen and assumed to be an adulterer or a whore, though nowhere do the Gospel accounts identify her or her sin) washes His feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, an action that she does freely. Christ contrasts the woman freely washing His feet with her tears out of love with the high priest, whose feet are washed out of obligation by a servant (probably a slave).
In this splendid painting, Poussin, always the scholar, shows the feast accurately as a Roman triclinium. Everyone lies on couches around three sides of a table of food. The figure of Christ recalls any number of early Roman and even Etruscan recumbant figures on ancient sarcophagi, again the theme of death and new life. A large magnificent water basin dominates the center of the picture at the end of the table, together with the servant struggling with large heavy water vessels, recalls Baptism.

detail of Penance showing Christ and the Woman

detail of Penance showing the servant washing Levi's feet, and the magnificent still life of vessels and dishes on the banquet table.

Probably the most magnificent and mysterious painting of the whole series illustrates the most important of all the Sacraments, Eucharist, the Mass. Poussin resisted the dramatic lighting and theatrical tenebrism of artists like Caravaggio and Giovanni Lanfranco, but here it is perfectly appropriate.
He condenses several episodes and aspects of the Last Supper into a single picture. He shows the Last Supper, again as a Roman triclinium, with Christ and the Apostles lying on couches around a food table. The whole magnificent room is lit with a single three flame lamp in the center of the painting. Poussin shows Christ blessing the wine. He has already blessed and broken the bread. The Apostles hold the bread in their hands about to eat it. Poussin and his scholarly friends knew that taking the Sacrament on the tongue was a recent innovation. Originally, it was taken in the hand. Judas has already been singled out and leaves the room to the left. A large basin of water appears in the shadow on the right in the foreground, a reference to the washing of the Apostles' feet, and to Baptism. The close proximity of all the Apostles together with Christ in a small pool of light in the larger darkness may recall the Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John where Christ prays for all of His followers and for their unity.

detail of Eucharist showing the Apostles eating the Bread while Christ blesses the Wine

Poussin illustrates marriage with the wedding of Mary and Joseph, an episode referred to in the Gospel accounts, but not fully described. Pious legend (collected by Jacobus de Voragine in The Golden Legend) fills out the areas left thin by the Gospel accounts. A seated priest joins the hands of the kneeling couple. The Virgin Mary's traditional parents, Joachim and Anna, appear to the left behind her. Joseph's staff blossoms, as did Aaron's staff, again the theme of life out of death. The brilliant primary and secondary colors and elaborate decoration of the room add to the festive quality of the scene, the most populated of all the Sacrament paintings, and the last one Poussin painted.

detail from Marriage showing Joseph with the flowering staff.

This painting, out of all of the series, most closely recalls prototypes by the great High Renaissance painter Raphael, whose work Poussin studied very closely. Poussin illustrates ordination with that most Roman Catholic of all subjects, Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to Peter. Poussin sets the story, not on the road, but in an urban setting that conflates ancient Rome with Jerusalem. To the right is a pyramid topped structure that recalls a similar structure still to be seen in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem traditionally identified as the Tomb of Zechariah. Neither Poussin, nor anyone in his circle, traveled to Jerusalem, but they would have been aware of illustrated traveler's accounts of the city. The tomb of Zechariah replaces the Castel Sant' Angelo (the ancient Tomb of the Emperor Hadrian) in its place at one end of the Ponte Sant' Angelo, a bridge that appears frequently in Poussin's work. If that is the Ponte Sant' Angelo, then this story would be taking place on the bank of the Tiber just to the east of the bridge. Where Christ raises His right hand with the Key would be the location of St.Peter's from this view. Not only is this a very clever illustration of Petrine doctrine, but it is also a reflection on the nature of salvation. Pousin, and every literate Roman and visitor of the time, know that the Castel Sant' Angelo was originally Hadrian's tomb. Bernini would eventually transform the Ponte Sant' Angelo in a giant meditation on Christ's Passion and Death with a series of marble angels holding instruments of Christ's Passion. The proximity of tomb and bridge was long used to illustrate the idea of death and salvation in Roman devotional literature. Poussin uses the bridge and tomb frequently in his paintings, even in paintings of Classical mythology such as the myth of Orpheus. It always plays a role suggesting death and salvation.
Strangest of all is the stone monument to the left with a very prominent letter "E" carved on it. Usually, this was interpreted as standing for "Emmanuel" or "Ecclesia." Anthony Blunt in his pioneering work on Poussin pointed out that Poussin and his circle were very much interested in comparative religion. They were especially interested to compare ancient Greek mysteries to Christian sacraments. They all read Plutarch, and would certainly have known a passage in his Moralia where he describes a big letter "E" carved over the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plutarch says that the "E" stood for the Greek word "ei" meaning "thou art." Plutarch assumed that was addressed to Apollo. Later Christian commentators said the "E" for "ei" was addressed to Christ. In the context of this painting, the "E" for "ei" would be the first two words of Christ's commandment to Peter, "Thou art Peter, the Rock upon whom I will build My Church."

detail of Ordination showing the bridge based on the Ponte Sant' Angelo together with the structure based on the Tomb of Zechariah in Jerusalem in place of the Castel Sant'Angelo (Hadrian's Tomb)

detail of Ordination showing the monument with the mysterious letter "E"

Extreme Unction

The last painting in this post was the first one of the series that Poussin finished. This is one of two of Sacrament paintings not illustrated by a New Testament episode. Poussin shows a veteran soldier on his deathbed surrounded by his grieving family. A priest anoints his hands as part of the ritual. Hanging above the bed and partially concealed by the curtain are a shield and sword. In the center of the shield is a small Chi Rho. This soldier seems to be a veteran of Constantine's army, perhaps even a veteran of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge where Constantine first fought and won under the Chi Rho.

detail of Unction showing the dying soldier, the priest, and his shield and sword

Scholars have long speculated about Poussin's religious views, and he left us few clues apart from his paintings. Speculation ranges from claims that Poussin was a follower of the Protestant leaning Jansenists to a completely secular libertin. As Blunt points out, all of these speculations assume that Poussin was outside the current mainstream of Roman Catholic thought at the time.
Considering Poussin's remarkable independence as an artist in age that saw any kind of intellectual independence as a threat, those speculations are reasonable. Poussin wrote very little about religious matters, probably deliberately. Committing independent and personal ideas about religion to writing could be very dangerous both in Catholic and Protestant Europe, and few people on both sides of the religious divide did so. Poussin and his circle belonged to a class of academics and intellectuals who were especially vulnerable in this age of competing fanaticisms.
On those few occasions where Poussin writes about religion, it is to express his horror at the religious warfare convulsing his native France, or to comment sarcastically about the hundreds of miracles and visions reported in Rome every year during this period of intensely emotional Catholic revival. The huge celebrations and revivals of the Jubilee Year of 1650 hardly appear in Poussin's letters. The death of Pope Urban VIII, one of the most generous of all papal patrons of art, provokes a few flip offhand comments about how Poussin is glad that he's dead and hopes that the next pope will be better.

Poussin and his circle turned to Stoicism, like a lot of intellectuals of the time who were the unwilling and largely impotent witnesses to the fanaticism and violence of a Europe rent by religious warfare. Rubens was also an enthusiastic reader of Stoic philosophy and counted a number of Neo-Stoic scholars as friends. Poussin and his circle found consolation in the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius probably more so than in the Christian Scriptures. They probably read some 17th century Neo-Stoics who were heretics like Tomaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno. Like Rubens, Poussin and his circle probably considered themselves fully within the Catholic Church. Unlike Rubens, they probably did not support the direction of reform in the Catholic Church and kept quiet about it.

I'm probably alone in my opinion, but I love Poussin's work. Yes, he is an acquired taste, and I was in grad school when I finally acquired that taste. I remember a couple of years ago making three separate visits to a big exhibition of Poussin's landscape paintings at the Met here in New York. The show had major paintings from the Louvre, London, the Prado, and more. It got rave reviews from the critics, and yet was never much of a crowd draw. I remember wandering through galleries hung with magnificent paintings almost empty of people. "Fine," I thought, "let 'em all eat cotton candy with the Impressionists, that just means more for me."
Poussin has long had a tremendous influence on my own work, and yet I notice that this is my first post on this blog about him.

As I get older, I more and more appreciate Paul Cezanne's insights into Poussin's work. In my younger days, I always thought of Poussin's work as cold and rationalizing. Now I understand that nothing could be more unjust than such a description of his work. Poussin's painting is poetic in the best sense, ever attuned to the sometimes discordant complexities of life. As intellectual and demanding as his work can be, it is driven by fires of very strong passion. I remember reading the work of one French art historian (whose name I can't remember) who defined "the monumental " as taking things out of time and remaking them to stand for all time. I can think of no better description of Poussin's work at its best.


June Butler said...

I'm probably alone in my opinion, but I love Poussin's work.

Indeed not, although I admit your post and pictures enhanced my appreciation of Poussin's paintings. The sacrament series is extraordinary, as is your commentary.

I always thought of Poussin's work as cold and rationalizing.

How could you?!! :-) I've never thought of Poussin's work in that way.

JCF said...

Interesting. I think I can say I "admire" this series, more than love it.

Lapinbizarre said...

Seems to me that one reason they are difficult for the broad modern audience is that some of their conventions - particularly Poussin's approach to classicism - are so alien to modern artistic convention. Often I find the detail of his work more attractive than the total. For brilliant 18th c work, stylized classicism and all, give me Tiepolo, an astonishing painter.