Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Poussin and Religion

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
La Vision de sainte Françoise Romaine: The Vision of Saint Francesca Romana
c. 1657
Oil on canvas
120,7 x 101,8 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Over three quarter of Poussin`s paintings have religious subjects

This has come as a surprise to some art historians who see him as a Classicist mainly concerned with pre-Christian Rome and Greece

The Louvre presently has an exhibition on Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) and his religious works: Poussin et Dieu

On the face of it the exhibition is to mark the 350th anniversary of the artist's death in 1665

The exhibition tries to review possible Christian readings of Poussin's painting and one of his signature features: his merging of the antique and Christian notions of the sacred

Poussin’s religious paintings have been studied far less than his secular works, largely due to the image of the artist that some art historians (in particular Anthony Blunt) have created

The result is often to see his works as works of the intellect and only fully appreciated through intellectual lenses

He resided in baroque Rome, in the period that followed the Council of Trent. 

According to Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti's Discorso, the proper purpose of religious art was: 'il dilettare, l'insegnare, e commovere'

Teaching may have been one purpose but as Paleotti pointed out the senses, interest and emotions of the spectator were also to be engaged

In addition to straight forward religious themes, he also used  religious motifs in his mythological works. 

For Blunt, Poussin is the great Stoic. Animated by great passion which is concentrated by serious intelligence, reason and the will

« Le Peintre philosophe  ... le maître du classicisme» who painted  the  « paysage idéal »

That is an element of his work but not the whole story

This painting of Saint Francesca Romana  (1384 – March 9, 1440)  is usually categorised as a commission as indeed it was - for Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi (the future Pope Clement IX)

The work was commissioned to celebrate the ending of an outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1656 - 7

Poussin’s niece and sister-in-law died in the outbreak in Rome

In 1656, the plague killed about half of Naples' 300,000 inhabitants. It was the worst disaster to strike the kingdom and city of Naples in the 1600s 

Compared to Naples and Southern Italy Rome had had a very narrow escape

St Francesca or St Frances was known by the people of Rome as "the Advocate of Rome"

Her intervention had been sought to end the plague and by 1657 the virulence of the epidemic had substantially decreased and it looked as if it was about to be eradicated

There are two possible interpretations of the work according to the Louvre catalogue

First, the Saint is appearing to a Roman lady or Carmelite (possibly Anna Colonna Barberini, founder of the convent and the Carmelite cchurch of Regina Coeli in Rome at this time) who is beseeching her to intervene and entreat the end of the plague

The alternative but far more likely explanation is that St Frances on behalf of the City of Rome is the one who is kneeling and appealing to Our Lady  to entreat her Son to end the plague

This is probably more likely as the figure of the Virgin is based on the cult of the city of Faenza to the Beata Vergine delle Grazie 

She is the patron saint of Faenza under the title Madonna delle Grazie

Faenza’s Beata Vergine delle Grazie emerged during the plague epidemic of 1410, when a woman named Giovanna de’ Costumi prayed to the Virgin for her city’s liberation

The Virgin Mary appeared to her, opened her arms in the manner of the crucified Christ, and, while breaking the arrows she held in each hand

The cult grew again in Faenza in 1630 and it would seem that the city was spared from the plague

The cult spread to Rome and Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi was a member of the Confraternity of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie 

This interpretation fits in with the idea of the painting being an ex voto

Arrows ? A classical reference.

Apollo was the pagan God who among other things brought plague through firing arrows

In Homer's Iliad I, 39, Apollo shoots the arrows of plague at the Greeks for nine days: “with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them.”

Apollo's many epithets included “Smintheus,” associated with mice and rats, both as their exterminator, but also as the bringer of the plague.

We see the angel chasing Apollo or his minion away like a giant mouse or rat back into the earth or ground whence the mice came

The mouse in ancient times was a symbol of prophetic power because it was thought mice were inspired by the exhaling coming out of the ground.

Here we see Mary surrounded by clouds or fumes like an Ancient Prophetess prophesying the end of the plague to the saint. No tripod. She dispels the fumes coming from the ground which the ancient sibyls relied on to prophesy. She overcomes the ancient pagan dispensation of evil soothsayers who scurry off stage right

The role of Mary as Prophet is seen in the New Testament in Luke 1:26-55- in the Canticle of Mary at the Visitation

We see it also in Lourdes and Fatima

In  the background of the painting we see scenes of the plague and an archangel putting to flight a monster who personifies the Great Affliction

The scene is set in  imposing architecture marked by classical pilasters framing a large arcade. 

The scene is Rome

The figure of the Plague has  the features of the Gladiator carrying a dead child and another, (based on the ancient statues in the Farnese collection now in the  Archaeological Museum in Naples). 

As for the reclining woman, she is based on the Baroque statue of   St. Cecilia of Maderno in the Church of Saint Cecilia in Rome, a greatly popular Roman site and shrine

The cult of Faenza becomes a cult of Rome

Mary is seen in her role as the mediatrix of Grace between human and divine. A Jesuit theme and certainly not Jansenist

Saint John Paul II once said:
"As the liturgy and Christian piety demonstrate, the Church has always held devotion to Mary in high esteem, considering it inseparably linked to belief in Christ. It is in fact based on the Father’s plan, the Saviour’s will and the Paraclete’s inspiration."
(General Audience Wednesday, 5 November 1997)
The importance of "popular piety" has always been emphasised by the Church. Pope Francis  wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:
"Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades following the Council. In the Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI gave a decisive impulse in this area. There he stated that popular piety “manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know” and that “it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief”. Closer to our own time, Benedict XVI, speaking about Latin America, pointed out that popular piety is “a precious treasure of the Catholic Church”, in which “we see the soul of the Latin American peoples”.

During the outbreak the Pope, Alexander VII stayed in the Quirinal

With the Congregazione della sanità strict health preventive measures were adopted and enforced

In July  1656, most of Romes distinguished artists and architects were invited to take up residence on the barricaded grounds of the Quirinal Palace

However Poussin appears to have stayed with his beloved wife Anne-Marie and his extended family

It would have been a fraught and anxious time to say the least

During the plague the Pope expressly entrusted the city to Our Lady

And during the plague time Poussin executed another work to Mary: The Annunciation (1657) which is in The National Gallery in London

Some have called it his greatest work

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Annunciation
Oil on canvas
106 x 104 cm
National Gallery, London

It is an austere work as one might expect in a time of plague which theologians of the time attributed to the effects of Original Sin and the Fall of Man

It has been suggested that the picture was intended to hang above the tomb of Poussin's patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588 - 1657), in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. 

Another possibility is that it was painted for Pope Alexander VII and for his private chapel at the Quirinal

Mary has a yellow shawl. Yellow was the colour which the Jews in Rome were compelled to wear at that time to distinguish them from other Romans

Rather ironically, Poussin used "Naples Yellow" (lead antimony yellow) a pigment of unusual origin with a touch of tin for the colour

In the 17th century, Naples yellow was a native earth associated only with Vesuvius and its environs as part of an attempt by makers to throw off how it was made

This is quite definitely a Mary of the Jewish faith

She is reading The Old Testament - the Word of God

It is soon to be given to her the choice to conceive The Word

She is meditating on it. She is praying

Or as said by Luke, she is pondering

The scene is narrated in Luke:
"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’ (Luke 1.26-31). 

Anthony Blunt argued that the work borrows from The Ecstasy of St Teresa sculpted by Bernini  for the Coronaro Chapel in Rome 

But the love here bears no trace of the erotic love depicted in Bernini`s work

We see agape

We see a Lady filled with Grace, that concept whose discussion led to a rupture in Christendom and whose debates were filled with hate and bitterness spilling over and developing into devastating conflicts which wracked European Christendom in the beginning of the 17th century

The conflagrations and wars were not about Grace but territory and treasure, The material, interest and power not spirit and certainly not about love and service. 

In the painting we see Mary is seated like the Seat of Wisdom and over her is the Holy Spirit, that person of the Trinity whose acts are " those in which Love excels"   
Perhaps this image brings to mind Scripture:
"That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit" (John iii., 6).  
"Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth" (Ps. ciii., 30).
Unlike one of Fra Angelico`s Annunciations, this Annunciation is a lean spare and powerful statement of the essential meaning of that most mysterious and most important event when Mary assented to the will of God and the countdown to Man`s redemption began

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