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

On Museums, Vandals, and Idolatry

You may have spotted news reports yesterday, gentle reader, regarding vandalism which took place over the weekend at the National Gallery in London. For those who missed it, two works by the 17th century French old master, Nicolas Poussin, were attacked on Sunday for reasons which still remain unknown. A man took a can of red spray-paint to Poussin’s paintings “The Worship of the Golden Calf” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which portray these events from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of St. Luke, respectively. The man was subsequently arrested, though as of this writing there have been no reports on what any charges would be. Fortunately, the conservation department of the museum managed to remove all of the red paint and no permanent damage was done to the paintings.

Reading about this event quite literally made me sick to my stomach, as I am sure it did many in the art world. A proposed solution which seems to be gaining traction among journalists and the commentariat is that there ought to provide greater security and screening, as well as an admission charge, both at the National Gallery and other British institutions where there are currently no such barriers to free entry. However these methods, while the intent behind them may be at least somewhat laudable, will ultimately prove ineffective at stopping those determined to engage in vandalism. They also reflect, ironically, how like the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, sometimes museums can forget that they are meant to serve others, not to worship idols.

Art history is full of examples of people who try to destroy works of art, whether because they are mentally ill, or politically motivated, or both. Pieces like Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example, have been attacked by individuals who are not quite compos mentis. Large-scale, politically motivated instances range from Savonarola ordering a bonfire of the vanities in Renaissance Florence, to Chairman Mao and the violent iconoclasm of his so-called Cultural Revolution, to the Taliban blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.  However as it happens, perhaps one of the most famous of all acts of art vandalism ever committed took place at the National Gallery in London almost a century ago.

On March 10, 1914, Suffragette Mary Richardson approached the “Rokeby Venus” of 1614-1615 by the great Spanish old master painter Diego Velázquez, which is the only one of his female nudes known to still be in existence, and smashed the glass that covered it. She then hacked at the canvas at least seven times with a meat cleaver before she was pulled off by a docent and by a policeman who happened to be in the museum. Ms. Richardson claimed that she took this action because one of her suffragette colleagues, Emmeline Pankhurst, had been arrested the previous day.

Subsequently in court, Ms. Richardson explained that

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.

Ms. Richardson subsequently spent six months in prison as a result of her act of vandalism, which was the maximum sentence at the time. Richardson later went on to join the Labor Party and run unsuccessfully several times for Parliament. Later still, in the 1930’s, she left the Labor Party and went on to head the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where I am sure she felt very much at home.

One of the unfortunate fallout results of Ms. Richardson’s actions, and copycat attacks by colleagues of hers at the National Portrait Gallery and other British museums, was that for a time, women were actually barred from visiting public museums. They would only be permitted to enter a museum if they were accompanied by an adult male, who could also vouch for their trustworthiness, i.e. that they would not try to vandalize any of the art on display. This humiliating and deeply insulting result was the only way people at the time, nearly a century ago now, felt that they could protect works of art from the more radical elements of the feminist movement. The powers that be at the time determined that it was more important to protect the art in public collections than it was to protect the dignity of those who sought to visit and study those collections.

In the wake of the Poussin attacks over the weekend, there is practical fallout for the National Gallery regarding future exhibitions. The planned lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery for an upcoming exhibition was going to be a sensation, as one of the few paintings by da Vinci comes from Krakow to London. The Polish foundation which owns the painting has expressed concern that the work may be vandalized or worse, given recent events at the National Gallery, and that there will be meetings to debate what to do, and whether the planned lending should proceed. No doubt other public collections and private collectors are going to do the same, before they will confirm that the lending of their pieces to the National Gallery will proceed.

However a more personal concern for those who visit public collections ought to be the question of whether, because of the bad acts of one person, they ought to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. Putting in greater security at public museums is not a bad idea, of course – particularly if you have borrowed someone else’s property for a show, and you do not want to be held liable for any damage it may suffer while in your care. Yet ultimately, greater security will do nothing to deter those who are determined to deface or destroy a work of art.

At the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, bag checks have been the norm for years. The guards look through your packages at the various entrances, and you are directed to a cloak room where you must leave your items. Yet despite these measures, quite recently a deranged woman still managed to attack one of the paintings at the Gauguin exhibition, by trying to pry it off the wall.

Ironically, when a work of art is placed into public hands, it often runs a greater risk of being damaged or destroyed, unless of course the work in question happens to be by Goya and finds its way into the hands of the repulsive Chapman brothers. The more people who have access to a painting like a Poussin, for example, the greater the chance that some crackpot will – ahem – take a crack at it. The best a museum can hope for is to reduce the risk that a work of art will be damaged or destroyed by certain methods of preventing disaster, such as through the use of bag checks and mandatory cloakrooms.

A public institution cannot, for the sake of protecting a work of art, forget that its mandate is one of public service rather than the adoration of idols, in the form of art objects. Art is fragile because it cannot fight back or run away when it is physically attacked; no matter its size or the composition of its materials, because of its static nature art relies on human beings to protect it from time, the elements, and indeed other human beings. Yet it is important for the museum to remember that, although works of art must be protected, the museum is losing sight of its purpose as a public institution if it views and treats everyone who comes to see a work of art as a potential criminal.

The National Gallery is fortunate that no lasting damage was done to the Poussin paintings, and the adoption of policies such as bag-checking would certainly be prudent.  However, no matter how good its security, vandalism cannot be completely prevented in a public institution. Rather than taking a misanthropic view of human nature, it would be more logical for the National Gallery to accept the fact that this type of crime will happen again at some point, since prevention is not a panacea for the preservation of objects in public collections. Taking that into consideration, hopefully the practical solutions which the museum adopts as a result of this event will be tempered by reason, keeping foremost in consideration its role as a public institution, and the end result will not cause the public to abandon a National Gallery which becomes as unpleasant a place to visit as a TSA checkpoint.

Detail of damage to “The Worship of the Golden Calf” by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1633-34)
National Gallery, London