Poussin’s Purpose: Looking At Sacred Art

The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge has announced that it is in the process of trying to raise the funds it needs to purchase a Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) painting entitled “Extreme Unction”, one of a series the painter created depicting the Seven Sacraments of the Church.  In viewing the painting, one is immediately struck not only by its crystalline perfection, but also by the classicism of the scene, which may strike some viewers as incongruous to their concept of Christianity.  Yet this work provides us with an opportunity to actively reconsider the way we look at sacred art, for it is an area of artistic expression in which we often do not realize that there are larger subjects being considered than simple historicism.

Nowadays “extreme unction” is rather less-grandly referred to as the “Anointing of the Sick”, since it had become associated in the minds of many Catholics only with those about to die, rather than as a sacrament available to anyone who is ill and wishes to receive it.  That being said, in Poussin’s picture the man receiving the sacrament is probably on his death bed, since his skin has a sickly pallor compared to the people around him.  The central part of the image depicts part of the administration of the sacrament, where the priest is sitting on the sick man’s bad and anointing him with holy oil.  For an added touch of authenticity, what appears to be an acolyte or altar boy kneels before the priest holding what is probably the text of the service.

Another man standing next to the head of the sick man, probably his son, holds a tall, lighted taper, while the woman immediately next to him holds or turns the head of the man so that the blessed oil can be applied correctly by the priest.  Surrounding the bed, various family members, friends, and attendants pray, weep, and bring or remove things, in an overlaid series of actions and reactions which anyone who has been around a seriously ill or dying person will recognize.  The careful viewer will note that the poor man’s feet are uncovered, sticking out from under his blanket, but that is not ill-intended either on the part of the persons in the room or the artist himself: rather, before some changes to the administration of the sacrament which were implemented after Vatican II, the sick person’s feet were anointed as well.

Without the title of the piece, and a little understanding about what is taking place in the picture, one could be forgiven for thinking this to be a scene depicting some story from Greek or Roman antiquity.  There is nothing that strikes us as overtly Christian about the people we see in Poussin’s painting. Yet this is because for most of us, the image we have in our mind’s eye of Christianity is one formed from a conglomeration of artistic ideas about sacred art, formed during the Byzantine period and further elaborated upon during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

For example, if I were to say to you, “Picture the Last Supper,” you would almost certainly call to mind Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of this subject.  In it, a long-haired, bearded Jesus dressed in a red tunic and blue mantle sits at the center of a long table, with His arms spread wide, as the Twelve react to His announcement of His upcoming betrayal by one of their number.  The perfect perspective of the room draws our eye back to a doorway and window openings, which look out to a verdant countryside.

The only problem is, from what we know of Palestine in 33 A.D., the actual Last Supper looked nothing like Da Vinci’s imagining of it.  For one thing Jesus and the Disciples, as Jews of the 1st century, would almost certainly not have been wearing tailored, luxurious robes and mantles in a host of colors from pink  to green to orange.  For another, they would not have been seated at what appears to be a European-style trestle table, eating off of pewter dinnerware, in a room overlooking the Italian countryside.

In the case of Poussin’s painting, we are not being shown a specific, historic event like the Last Supper, but rather the administration of a sacrament in an unknown place and at an unknown time.  We can reasonably assume that Poussin wants us to believe that we are somewhere in the Roman Empire, perhaps in Corinth, Ephesus, or even in Rome itself, during the early centuries of the Church, but that is all we can assume.  Yet despite their differences, both of these artists are in fact trying to speak to larger theological questions with their art.

In depicting the Last Supper, Da Vinci is interested in the reaction of the Disciples to the news of their impending betrayal of Jesus.  Betraying Christ is something which all Christians are guilty of at times, in our own lives, and this is something which the Dominican friars for whose refectory Da Vinci painted the fresco would have appreciated, as they reflected on their own fallen and sinful nature.  Similarly, in his series of paintings on the sacraments, Poussin met the needs of his patron in Rome, a well-connected scholar and secretary to a powerful Cardinal.  In his series Poussin shows that the Church is universal, and indeed had its origins in antiquity, at a time when studies of the ancient world were pulling more and more people toward secularism, based on a false perception that Christianity was something little more than medieval.

Understanding the motivations which produce different types of sacred art, one can move beyond the visual differences between different artists, to a greater appreciation of what greater truth each artist is trying to bring across to the viewer.  While neither Da Vinci or Poussin, as it happens, are personal favorites of mine, each of them in the two examples considered above points to a theological truth through their art, rather than simply creating a static, snapshot image.  The more one understands this, the more one can appreciate why sacred art may not always win points for historical accuracy, but it has a greater purpose than simply trying to capture a moment.

“Extreme Unction” by Nicholas Poussin (c. 1638-1640)
On Loan to The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge