Tag Archives: Poussin

10th Sunday (C) Luke 7:11-17 The Raising of the Son of the Widow at Nain

The reading for the 10th Sunday, year C is the account of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, on the occasion of Jesus’ visit to this town during his ministry in Galilee. It gives an answer to the the question St John the Baptist languishing in prison will later pose about Jesus and his identity. It confirms that Jesus’ messianic identity and his status as a great prophet is assured by his actions. Later, in chapter 8, Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus, but already here his power is manifested, echoing that of Elijah, who raised the son of the widow of Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:18-24). St Luke has the miracle repeated in turn in the book of Acts, where St Peter raises Tabitha. The miracle causes a great stir, and reminds the reader of the reaction at the naming of St John the Baptist, and the language of the Benedictus in the early chapters of St Luke’s gospel. The miracle is also remarkable because it comes from Jesus’ compassion for the widow.

The image is frequently found in the iconography of the early Christian church, because, like the account of the raising of Lazarus, (John12), it contains a pre-figuring of Christ’s own resurrection, and shows the power of God to raise the dead. It was this theme which dominated. It is frequently found on sarcophagi: 16 examples have been recorded on Roman sarcophagi and 8 on Gallic ones including one now in the British Museum  from Arles and others in Leiden and Oudheden . 1 For the same reasons, it also featured in the decoration of the funerary chapel of the Parecclesion church in Kariye, Turkey, as part of the decoration around the Anastasis. It can be viewed in the Columbia virtual museum version.

There are other examples of the subject in art, such as the Ottonian ivory panel in the British Museum from Magdeburg. However, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain is not frequently found in Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque art, possibly because it did not easily suit an altarpiece, though Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus is one example of a parallel exception. There is a painting by Lucas Cranach, and there are two versions by Veronese, one in the Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna, possibly for a scuole, though too small in scale for the fictive architecture in the painting to continue a real setting, as in Titian’s Presentation, which has certainly influenced it and another version, very similar in composition, recently at auction. In both these, Veronese has centred the painting on the intercession of the woman before Christ, with the young man in the left hand lower corner of the scene

One exception from the baroque period is the painting above by Eustache le Sueur (1616-55) from the mid 17th century. It now hangs by the left pillar of the Lady Chapel in the Church of St Roch, Rue St Honore, Paris, but predates the rebuilding of the church (1653-1740) by a few years. Like Charles Lebrun, Le Sueur was a pupil of the classical baroque artist Simon Vouet, and he may have met Poussin on his return to Paris in 1640-2, who certainly influenced his style. He continued to work mainly on religious paintings in the churches around Paris. He was close to the Carthusians in the city and completed a cycle of 22 paintings of scenes from the life of St Bruno for the cloister, now in the Louvre, including St Bruno appearing to Comte RogerConsecration of a Carthusian ChurchSt Bruno attending the Sermon of Raymond DiocreRaymond Diocre answers after his Death and  Death of St Bruno. These show his gift for composition, the psychological aspect of a scene and his delicate use of colour, which was influenced by Poussin. He left the Paris guild of artists early on to become a  founder member of the Royal Academy of Painting in Paris in 1645. In the Academy, rhetorical gestures in the figures in paintings and the use of colour to affect mood were most important and Raphael was taken as a model. His influence can be seen particularly in le Sueur’s later paintings. The Louvre also has St Paul preaching at Ephesus, another rare subject.

In Le Sueur’s treatment of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain, several of the themes in the gospel passage are brought out and combined together, not just the Resurrection: Jesus’ compassion, the theme of Resurrection; the awe and wonder of the crowd at the presence of a great prophet, as well as Jesus’ own sense of the foreboding concerning what is about to come, which in the Gospel is already shown in some reactions of the crowd and in the predicament of St John the Baptist. The composition is classical and rectilinear, with a series of vertical lines and accents and a few diagonals intersecting. Christ is placed just off centre, moving dramatically into the centre of the space from the right.  Le Sueur gives Christ a fine ultramarine robe, in the most expensive pigment, brighter than the blue of the sky, modelled  in light and shade close to Raphael in technique. Le Sueur was also influenced by Poussin’s use of colour to punctuate the scene, especially the contrasting use of red and blue to emphasise what is most central: around the figure of Christ, there are various shades of red and yellow which accentuate the blue robe of Christ. The tanned complexion of the pall bearer on the left is juxtaposed with the greenish tint of the skin of the just risen son, whilst the widow’s bright yellow robe, which overshadows the golden hue of the walls behind, finds an echo in the sash of the putti looking down on the scene. All the figures enter into the drama and have a look of astonishment, on their faces, while Christ himself looks into the eyes of the young man with an expression of compassion and a sense of recognition that this prefigures his own destiny. But it also seems Le Sueur goes beyond the gospel passage, for It is as if the young man, unfurling his own funeral pall, represents the one who, in the new life of baptism, experiences and encounters, the one he or she will follow, the source of Life.

1. See note 10  in Lee Jefferson The Staff of Jesus in Early Christian Art  Religion and the Arts 2010, (14) 221-251

5th Sunday Lent (C) Woman Taken in Adultery John 8:1-11

Rembrandt: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1644, National Gallery, London.

This small panel painting of the Woman Taken in Adultery, as the theme of the Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday, is sometimes known, is very remarkable in the oeuvre of Rembrandt for the exquisite quality of the detailed painting and dramatic lighting in the foreground of the main subject, in contrast to the dim, monochromatic, heavily impastoed and indistinct background scene of the Temple, at a time in the mid 1640’s when he had already been developing a more evenly broad handled and painterly style for 10 or more years. Many contemporary paintings by Rembrandt such as the Adoration of the Shepherds, of 1646 show this development

Many artists painted this subject during the 16th and 17th century, not just in the Protestant countries in the North but also in Italy and elsewhere. Artists treated different moments in the encounter. By far the most common was to show Christ writing on the ground, as in Poussin’s version in the Louvre of 1653 and in Bruegel’s grisaille painting in the Courtauld, another was the moment when the scene changes as the accusers move away. Other artists, such as Lotto show the aggression of the crowd being focussed on Jesus, so that the scene becomes a precursor of the Passion. This last theme of heightened tension and aggression directed at Jesus is definitely present in the Gospel as a whole and in this passage. It may be partly why the 5th Sunday in Lent in the three year cycle shifts to John.

However, the Gospel passage is also focussed on the Lenten theme of repentance, and Rembrandt, who has shifted the action to an earlier point-just after the woman is brought to Jesus in danger of her life- stays close to this theme. The quality of the painting in the foreground is detailed and exquisite, using rich saturated colours to build up the play of light on fabrics and jewellry through several glazes. The woman is centrally placed and bathed in natural light which falls diagonally from behind Jesus, as if mediated by him, illuminating her and the steps in front. We are drawn into this scene of bathos.

In the background, to the left is smaller group completely apart, with backs turned, and then behind there is a raised area with Rembrandt’s vision of the Temple of Jesus’ time as a gloomy and imposing candlelit space. There, action is also taking place, also quite apart, which echoes indistinctly the action of the foreground. However, with the axis of the Temple being oblique and with the heavily impastoed and monochrome palette, it remains unclear.

It is believed that Rembrandt studied the Biblical accounts of the Temple as well as those of Josephus for his depiction. He may also have been influenced by the then newly-constructed Sephardic Synagogue in Amsterdam, which even today, when candlelit seems remarkably similar to the effect of his interior. He may also have adapted contemporary ark designs for the synagogue such as in the Jewish museum, London and used these to depict the Temple. The structure behind the High priest also seems like a Torah breastplate, although different in scale.

It is possible that Rembrandt’s aim is simply to contrast grace with the law in this painting and to show that what is happening in the background is about to be obscured or replaced by the light of the Gospel. However, it may be rather that Rembrandt is showing that what is important is conversion and transformation through the radiant and compassionate love of God, here mediated by Christ. The detail of the foreground highlights the simplicity of Christ’s brown garb and the purity of the light as it falls from above him onto the woman and the steps, in contrast to the elaborate impasto of the background scene.  In its message, the painting looks forward to the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage of many years later.

I am indebted to Michael Podro’s observations in the article ‘Rembrandt’s Woman Taken in Adultery’ in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 50, (1987), pp. 245-252 available for online reading at JSTOR,. He highlights the significance of the way Rembrandt has differently painted the foreground and background scenes, and suggests an additional possible link to the Calvinist and Arminian theological disputes in Amsterdam at the time.