Poussin painted two series of paintings of the Seven Sacraments, one in the late 1630s and the second in the 1640s. This one from the first series depicting Extreme Unction has been bought for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and is currently on display in the National Gallery, London. It shows extreme unction being administered to a dying man by a priest, accompanied by two acolytes, while his family and servants and a doctor look on. Poussin has set the event in the early Roman church, paying attention to the details of the architecture and furnishings as well as the dress of the figures. Nicholas Penny, the director at the National Gallery praises the painting for its legible narrative and clarity of composition and for the way he captures the grief, solace and hope which are part of the reality of a death bed scene imbued with faith.
The room with its doors and windows opening out to a hidden beyond makes a fitting setting to describe the passing nature of life. One is reminded of St Bede’s words from The Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People:
“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”
In Poussin’s painting there is a warmth to the light which bathes the man’s face and lights the scene from the left. The movement out of the room of the servant girl opposite the window, who catches our eye, might speak of the soul’s new lightness of step on its path to salvation.