Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St Paul, 1649-50. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
On the whole I try not to get carried away by things, although, as I’m sure most of you know, my enthusiasm does mean that I rarely have the discipline to edit my presentations adequately – hence my now standard length of an hour and five minutes… I will try and keep them within the promised sixty minutes in future. Honest. My next attempt will be an introduction to Poussin and the Dance, on Tuesday 7 December, an entirely delightful exhibition at the National Gallery in London which dispels so many of the preconceptions people have about this, the most worthy of French (?) Baroque (?) masters. Not only will I explain those two question marks, I will also cover the full range of material within the exhibition, looking at the apparently effortless complexity of some of Poussin’s compositions, which is shared by the remarkable disposition of limbs in today’s painting. After that, on Tuesday 14 December, we will follow Dürer’s Journeys, another superb offering from the National Gallery, a talk which will also include a nod to the beautiful drawing currently for sale at Agnews (see below…). And there are other talks: full details are listed in my diary. But now it is time for some of us – or, at least, St Paul – to get carried away.
A few years after his arrival in Rome in 1624, Poussin was commissioned to paint the Martyrdom of St Erasmus for St Peter’s, but this was to remain one of only a handful of church commissions. So few were they – and so out of tune was he with the Roman Baroque – that the entry on the website of the Met in New York goes so far as to says, ‘The large, theatrical saints in ecstasy and scenes of apotheosis so popular at the time clearly struck no responsive chord in Poussin,’ and yet it is precisely this sort of work – today’s painting, and an Assumption of the Virgin in the National Gallery of Art in Washington – which have always been among my favourites. They are completely airborne, not the earthbound, weighty things that his works, at their most stolid, can be – works which, I’m sure it goes without saying, do not include his elegant depictions of dance! We see St Paul raised aloft by three angels, his usual attributes of book and sword left behind, with the remarkable combination of legs, arms and wings (eight, eight and six of these respectively, although not all are visible) acting as a form of mandorla (Italian for ‘almond’), the shape in which the spiritual glow of an assumption or ascension is usually depicted.
The painting is an illustration of a passage from St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where, in Chapter 12, verses 1-5, he reluctantly describes one of his own visions:
12 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.
That this is St Paul is confirmed, as I have said, by the attributes left behind in the stark, classical portico. There is a sword, hilt resting on a doorstep, and blade sloping diagonally to the floor, crossing over, and just touching, the edge of a book. The shadow of the sword, going from left to right, cutting across floor and book, suggests that the light is coming from almost directly overhead – from Heaven – which in turn implies that the shadow which covers one end of the book and a fair proportion of the step must be that of the Saint and his accompanying angels. It is a two-edged sword, in both meaning and function. It stands for the way in which he, as Saul, persecuted the early Christians, but also represents his later martyrdom (in common belief, at least) by beheading. It is also, undoubtedly, a reference to his instruction, in Ephesians 6:10 to ‘Put on the whole armour of God,’ which culminates, in verse 17, with ‘the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. The ‘word of God‘ itself is lying on the floor beneath the sword: the bible. He often holds this book in recognition of the vital role his epistles play in church teaching, but also to represent his own tireless evangelising.
An additional confirmation of his identity is provided by the colours he wears – red and green – although these are not depicted with the same canonical regularity as St Peter’s yellow and blue. I always take a while to work out what is going on in this extraordinary tumble of figures. It is almost as if the angel on the right, in blue, is leaning back while sitting on a cloud, with the angel in yellow – on the left – sitting on his right knee, and also leaning back. Their legs then alternate. Looking from left to right we see two right legs and two left, with the addition of the blue robe of the right-hand angel falling between the right and left legs, echoing their shape as if it were a fifth ankle, heel and foot, like a pointed blue shoe. As these two angels bear Paul upwards he appears to be resting on the hip of one and chest of the other, his right leg uppermost, supported by the yellow angel’s extended right hand. This dazzling display of legs is rendered all the more remarkable by the flashes of light and shadow which tends to break up their integrity, making them not only more difficult to decipher, but also, surprisingly perhaps, more real. The right wing of the left angel and the left wing of his companion on the right frame this remarkable display, as they look up, in light and shadow respectively, in the direction they are going. The left wing of the yellow angel can be seen pointing downwards at the back, and forms its own counterpoint with the ends of ivory and gold ribbon – something like an ecclesiastical stole – which flutter out behind it.
The topmost angel only serves to guide the way. He points upwards, to heaven, while delicately holding St Paul’s left hand. There is no real support here: he doesn’t seem to bear any weight – nor does he need to look in the direction of travel, but gazes out with an almost visionary fixation. His wings echo those of his companions beneath, whereas the bend of his right arm parallels the open, accepting gesture of the saint. Paul himself appears in his prime. Unlike St Peter, who is always shown with short grey hair and beard (whether as Christ’s first disciple, or more than thirty years later, at his own death) Paul is identified by dark hair and beard. However, his hair is often thinning, and the beard longer and straighter. Here they are thick, and full-bodied – lustrous even. Maybe this is Poussin taking on board the comment, in 2 Corinthians 12:2, that this rapture happened ‘above fourteen years ago’.
Seen as a whole I find the composition truly remarkable. Intricate, accurate, and almost apparently effortless. The whole grouping is surrounded by an even array of heads, wings, arms and legs radiating in all directions, into and out of the fictive space defined by the painting, in its form a sort of sacred sea urchin. And despite this complexity, the internal logic holds: the way in which they are arranged and support one another, the positions they occupy in space, indeed everything we see, is entirely coherent. St Paul, comfortably borne aloft, looks upwards towards the light. Just above him we can see the edge of a cloud which is outlined by highlights which look just a little like lightning – and this reminds me of another painting of St Paul seeing the light which Poussin must have known.
In Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul – painted for Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in 1601, 23 years before Poussin arrived from Paris, and 48 years before his own masterpiece – it is the leg of the horse which defines the light coming down from heaven. Is it just me, or do the diagonals of the leg look almost exactly the same as the highlighting of the clouds? I wonder if Poussin was thinking of this? The gesture of the saint is not entirely different, after all, even if he is being carried towards the light, as opposed to being thrown back by it.
It was the second time Poussin had painted the subject. The first, dating from 1643, just a few years before, was for his friend – and patron – Paul Fréart de Chantelou. It was a direct response to a commission for a painting to hang with one of Chantelou’s prized possessions, Raphael’s equally astonishing Vision of Ezekiel. Poussin seems to have been worried that his painting would not stand up well to the comparison with the great renaissance master, and asked that the two paintings should never be shown together. He even went so far as to suggest that his work might serve as a cover for the Raphael, as a sort-of warm-up act, if you like. Today’s painting was the result of another commission, from writer Paul Scarron, who in 1643 had published A Collection of Some Burlesque Verses. Poussin hated Scarron’s work, and tried to put him off. However, the commission came via Chantelou, and so eventually the painter relented. At first Scarron was offered a bacchanalian subject, but, for whatever reason, this was not what he wanted, and the commission evolved into this inspirational image of the poet’s name saint, Paul. For his second essay on this theme Poussin developed a composition which came far closer to Raphael’s Ezekiel than the earlier version, perhaps because this time, there was no chance of a direct comparison.
Poussin’s compositional skills can not be denied, and he deployed them in equal measure when painting dancers – just one of the reasons why the exhibition Poussin and the Dance is such a delight. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday, and then, the following week, for Dürer’s Journeys. If there’s time in between I may blog about the charming drawing below, but it’s going to be a busy week (see the diary). However, I wanted to show it to you today, to give you a chance to see it in person. Having been bought at a clearance sale for $30 it has only recently been authenticated as an original, and is on display at Agnews (6 St James’s Place) from 10-6 Monday-Friday until 10 December. Do go and see it if you can get into London – just ring on the bell and ask to see the Dürer. I did earlier in the week, and it is a wonderful experience – they are most welcoming, and very generous with their time and expertise. It really is worthwhile spending the time with just one drawing – although there are also other treasures on show. While you’re there, if anyone has a spare $50 million…