11 Novembre 2016

Finger on the Lips: Poussin’s Animation of the Hieratic in the Moses Tableaus


Iconocrazia 10/2016 - "Arts & Politics. Rhetorical Quests in Cultural Imaging", Saggi

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Throughout his career, the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) painted several episodes from Moses’s life, including five depictions of Moses as a baby near the Nile.

Table 1: Overview of Poussin’s paintings

Title/episode Year Collection
The exposition of Moses Ca.1624 Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
The finding of Moses 1638 Musée du Louvre, Paris
The finding of Moses 1647 Musée du Louvre, Paris
The finding of Moses 1651 National Gallery, London
The exposition of Moses 1654 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Poussin used several elements to construe a deeper meaning of these paintings. To begin with his choice for the repudiation for his first and final piece is telling: the finding of Moses is the conventional episode, probably due to the more happy event and the appealing possibility to depict an exotic princess like Poussin executed this episode in his three “middle” works. The Ashmolean Exposition of Moses, the final depiction of the repudiation forms this article’s centerpiece, as it is the most elaborate composition.

In the Moses works, Poussin included references to the future -both near and distant- and thus unfolded a religious persuasion: Christianity emanated from antique religion and mystery cults, especially those related to Egypt. To elicit these origins of wisdom, Poussin developed a pictorial narrative style in which four new methods are combined.

First of all, Poussin based his images referring to ancient Egypt on available examples -mostly Hellenist and Roman- and contemporary theories. Secondly, from the antique prototypes the formal principle of parallelism developed. Thirdly, he breathed life into his stone sources like mosaics and frescoes. And finally, in the spirit of the time Poussin syncretized various gods and heroes, following the initial Hellenist and Roman impetus.

All Poussin’s painterly interpretations hamper the identification of the sources as such. Two elaborate articles -by Charles Dempsey and Malcolm Bull respectively- discussed Egyptian influences on Poussin’s work.[1] In this article I shall focus on the finger on the lips in the Ashmolean Moses; although the female executing this gesture is standing literally overshadowed in the inconspicuous second plan behind the prominent figures in the foreground, she is located close to the meaningful physical center of the canvas. By discussing all four of Poussin’s methods mentioned above, I shall argue the gesture means more than just an urge to silence.

The unraveling starts with the formal aspects in the painting itself, followed by a comparison with the early Dresden depiction of The exposition of Moses (1624). I shall discuss the following antique sources: a Roman mural from a burial chamber, a Hellenist mosaic providing an overview of Egypt, and a romanized Egyptian God. I also compare the composition to a traditional depiction of the scene by Poussin’s peer Breenbergh. But first let me introduce the more eye-catching cast in Poussin’s depiction of The exposition of Moses and highlight differences in their configurations.


Poussin’s final ‘Exposition of Moses’ (1654)

Fig.1 WA1950.169 Nicolas Poussin, The Exposition of Moses, 1654, oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Fig.1. WA1950.169 Nicolas Poussin, The Exposition of Moses, 1654, oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

“Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river”, the Pharaoh promulgated his macabre verdict: to guarantee his throne, he declared all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed. This phrase from the biblical Book of Exodus 1:22 triggered the action we see depicted in the first and the last Moses painting by Nicolas Poussin. Low in the center a woman kneels on the shore, accentuated by her light, pink skirt. She is Jochebed, looking back at her husband Amram. Behind him walks their three year old son Aaron, returning our view with his direction of gaze to Jochebed. When extended -enhanced by the gesture of their mother- our eyes continue to his sibling; Moses in a floating crib. His small upward raised arm points to the face of a river god, identified as the Nile by the accompanying sphinx. The gaze of the Nile god brings us back to Jochebed. The girl with her finger in the lips behind them is Moses’s sister Miriam. Her participation in the interplay of lines in the fore ground only comes from her glance down to her mother.

In their Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings, the Ashmolean Museum praises the emotional intensity of the piece, “with the focus on Moses’s grief-stricken parents”.[2] Indeed, the family is forced to part and leaving is to die a little, yet the depicted moment is more multi-layered, following Poussin’s own indication: compositions have to be “read” instead of “being looked at”.[3]

Firstly the arrows indicating our direction of gaze are an obvious iconographical argument that Jochebed is the central point of focus. The intensity is clenched in the dramatic disposal. After having placed her youngest son in an ark of bull rushes, she is not just laying the precious package in the flags by the river’s brink: she rather pushes the basket away from her to go with the flow. She is literally twisted in looking backwards yet forcing the child in the other direction. What is the effect of her pose, when compared –composition wise- to Poussin’s early execution of the repudiation?


Poussin’s first ‘Exposition of Moses’

Fig. 2. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The exposition of Moses, ca.1624, oil on canvas, 145 × 196 cm. Gal.nr. 720, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden Donbarone.selfip.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15648294

Fig. 2. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The exposition of Moses, ca.1624, oil on canvas, 145 × 196 cm. Gal.nr. 720, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden Donbarone.selfip.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15648294

Leading up to the Ashmolean version of Moses, Poussin depicted the first variation of the theme about 30 years previous. Here the river god lies with his back towards us, functioning as a repoussoir, dragging us into the depth by a spiraling movement. We continue via the pale baby to the muscular upper body of the kneeling man putting the basket into the water. Behind him Jochebed’s struggle to let her son go is now caught in her desperately outstretched arms. She cannot keep her eyes off her youngest.

The gesture of her right hand is mimicked by Miriam behind her, already occupying the second plane. Her left arm over her head and her waving yellow kirtle opens the view to a deeper background level, where we descry a group of figures in front of two steep pyramids. Three servants lead the way for Thermutis -the daughter of the selfsame pharaoh-, a musician encloses the small pageant. The golden glow of the dress and her royal tiara gives her the status as an Egyptian princess, and connects her to Miriam’s saffron dress as well. In letting the infant stretch his arm visually towards her -an approach answered by her gaze-,[4] Poussin cleverly connects the present to Moses’s direct future as the own daughter of the hostile pharaoh shall adopt him. Poussin thus incorporates the next stage of the story, the finding of Moses. The spiraling sweep in the depth dimension becomes a visual metaphor of time.[5]

Although Thermutis is also placed far away in the Ashmolean background, the arrangement of the protagonists next to each other rather accentuates the flatness of the canvas, forming a barrier that keeps our attention looped to the first plan. What caused Poussin’s change?


Monumental frieze

Fig.3 Roman, ‘Cultic scene’ 30-20 BC, Fresco from columbarium Villa Doria Pamphilj Rome, Musée National Romain, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo: MM, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MNR-PalMassimo-ColombarioVillaDoriaPamphilj_04.JPG

Fig.3 Roman, ‘Cultic scene’ 30-20 BC, Fresco from columbarium Villa Doria Pamphilj Rome, Musée National Romain, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo: MM, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MNR-PalMassimo-ColombarioVillaDoriaPamphilj_04.JPG

An antique columbarium under the villa Doria Pamphili in Rome is detected by Dempsey as Poussin’s source.[6] With his connections, Poussin should have been able to visit the underground burial chamber. The frescos between the rows of recesses – to contain urns- are recognized as influencing Poussin’s gesticulating figures in long draperies. Yet, in my opinion, the friezes unearthed at villa Doria Pamphili also influence Poussin’s handling of space. The spiraling sweep from the Dresden Moses develops into a frieze-like setting for the Ashmolean composition by placing the figure group parallel to the pictorial plane. Beside the formal principle of monumentality, it also contained the common “moral and philosophical idea relying on the premise that nature has an order”.[7] Its echo was found in antique arts, fitting the historical awareness of Poussin’s time.

But how is this flattening tendency compatible with the spatial landscape behind the figures?


Nilotic Egypt
On their website, the Ashmolean Museum points out the seventeenth century perception on Egypt:

Poussin had very little idea of Egypt […]and based the buildings […] and the surrounding landscape on his knowledge of ancient Rome […].This lack of authenticity in painting Biblical pictures was common at the time[8]

Poussin indeed construed his sumptuous landscape from different sources since Egypt was not fit to be travelled across and remained largely unseen until Napoleon’s campaign in 1798. Instead, Hellenist and Roman versions of the Nile formed the most truthful representations, pieces of scenery that are no longer representative to specify Egypt to our modern eyes. Therefore, a ‘lack of authenticity’ would -in my opinion- have been a principal affront to Poussin’s intention to incorporate an ‘air of antiquity’ in both form as meaning.

Therefore Poussin inventively set the frieze-like constellation of figures against the backdrop of the hellenized panorama of Egypt: the elaborate floor mosaic of Praeneste. Beside the original, Poussin studied its archeological details after drawings from the collection of his friend and maecenas Commendatore Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657).[9] In a letter Poussin enunciated his interest in the Egyptian motifs,[10] especially explaining the massive plane of smooth water containing a crossing boat and a hippo hunt as well as the figures standing on the protruding tongue of land in The finding of Moses.


Play with ruins

Fig. 4. Bartholomeus Breenbergh, The Finding of Moses 1639, oil on panel, 48 x 81 cm. Private collection. Source: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/breenber/findingm.html

Fig. 4. Bartholomeus Breenbergh, The Finding of Moses 1639, oil on panel, 48 x 81 cm. Private collection. Source: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/breenber/findingm.html

Compared to the original, Poussin remodeled the tessallation as a “graceful play” into a naturalistic décor; “the past cannot be retrieved by imitation”.[11] The same approach is used for the monuments, which causes a different effect in the reworked buildings and sculptured figures. Again, the forms are inspired by authentic examples, again not from the land of origin itself: prototypes were abundantly present in Rome. Beside the discussed Nilotic landscapes, there are two other types of sources: authentic objects imported from Egypt itself and secondly Roman remakes of originals,[12] a retrotrend avant-la-lettre specified as “egyptianesque”.[13]

Considering the architecture, Dempsey already explained Poussin’s reincorporation of the temples as depicted in the Praeneste mosaic.[14] The addition of the steep pyramid is more commonplace as a geographical reference. Like the obelisk in the Finding of Moses by the Dutch artist Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657): the monument appeared already as a piece of scenery in Breenbergh’s 1631-34 painting ‘Christ and the Nobleman of Capernaum’.[15] The lion at its base is suitably replaced by a bright white sculpture group to represent the river Nile and locate Moses’s descry.

Beside this meaningful replacement of sculptures and the early dating, Breenbergh’s painting is a random representation of the canonical setting of young Moses’s incident near the Nile. In addition, the distinguished characteristic of pagan monuments could relate Christianity to the almost bygone heathen culture presented in symbolic decline:[16] the difference was elucidated by contrasting real life with the crumbling past of the ruins.

This notion discerns Poussin from other performers of the Moses narrative: his pyramid is not demolished. And that was not even Poussin’s most pronounced rephrasing of past. The monument matched mostly to his will, was the personification par excellence to announce Moses venture: old father Nile. The river god is easily adapted as accurate in our present perception, yet its marble personification is as alienated from the original pharaonic culture as the Praeneste landscape in mosaic is.

Poussin’s biographer Anthony Blunt indicates Poussin’s river god as a “marbled execution”,[17] following naturally the canonical concept of the incorporation of statues in painting. Yet, all Poussin’s river god torsos are clearly bronzed. Nor are the males fit in a frame by being placed on a pedestal: Poussin also transformed –or: depetrified- sculpture from marble into flesh and blood.[18] The observation leads to the question if more carved sources can be detected.


Finger on the lips

Fig. 5. Cornelis Bloemaert (after Giovanni Battista Ruggieri), ‘Harpocrates’, ca.1636, engraving, 36,7 x 23,7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.collect.81419

Fig. 5. Cornelis Bloemaert (after Giovanni Battista Ruggieri), ‘Harpocrates’, ca.1636, engraving, 36,7 x 23,7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.collect.81419

Miriam, not directly eye-catching standing behind her mother, demands a hush of silence; after all a tricky, dangerous operation is going on, saving her brother from Egyptian death squads.

But her gesture also illustrates Poussin’s last method of syncretization: Miriam is fused with an Egyptian god. Her finger is a coming alive of the exemplary act Isis’s son Horus performs; him being a child is made clear by placing the finger to his mouth.[19] Misunderstood, the hellenized version transformed from a pharaonic indicator of youth, to a ritual gesture of silence of the Graeco-Roman adaption, bearing the name Harpocrates. He syncretized with the supposed Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistus and matured as a God of Wisdom as his silence gained a mystic meaning: the god sees and hears everything, but does not speak a word.[20]

Poussin thus relates Moses with Egypt to a deeper stratum than just an accidental palm tree. Instead his future wisdom is accentuated, as explicated by the Bible: “Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians and he was mighty in his words and in deeds.”[21] Or clarified in words stemming from Poussin’s own time: “perhaps the mystical method of Moses bred up in the hieroglyphical schools of the Egyptians.”[22]

Indeed, passion for Egyptian wisdom flourished during Poussin’s time. Poussin’s contemporary Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) considered deciphering the hieroglyphs as the ultimate source of wisdom.[23] In the spirit of the time, Kircher designed a few himself. This trend to supplement the secret wisdom of the ancients was rooted in earlier times: Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) explored the evolving character of individual myths while adding himself multiple layers to improve the mystic content. Ficino, now, related Moses’s family roots to the Egyptian god Hermes.[24] In mimicking the gesture of the finger, Poussin links Miriam specifically to this supposed ancient knowledge as developed from Horus via Harpocrates to Hermes Trismegistus. At least for the “initiated viewer”.

Long term effects
Finally, the syncretism not only amalgamates the qualities of different personages, it allows Poussin also to play an eloquent game with time. Let us re-read the composition again.

The frieze starts with Moses’s old father, walking out of the picture plane on the left, back to the physical past. Mother Jochabed kneels, her body turned to the right, but she also looks left, back to her husband, repeated by direction of gaze of the old river Nile. All three have a younger pendant – Aaron, Miriam and the sphinx- looking the other way, to the right, straight into the future. It is the direction Moses floats towards, and knowing his destiny means the supposed deadly waters turned out to become the road heading to the future.

But beside this literary past –parallel to the pictorial plane-, also a deeper past can be read in the spatial depth of the composition. It is indicated by the vertical axis formed by Miriam and her mother. The daughter shows a comparable turned pose, yet mirrors the directions of her mother: she looks right, to the future, while her body is twisted to the left. Again she accentuates Moses’s hopeful future by Thermuthis’s approaching, as in the Dresden Moses. On the preceding side of Miriam, Thermutis represents ancient religion.

As not only the individual life of the boy is saved, he symbolizes the promise of a new religion, in which even another form of syncretism can be read: the infant in the arch prefigures the one in the manger, as already accentuated from the 13th and 14th century like in the Bible moralisée.[25] In Poussin’s Moses also the foreshadowing of Jesus is recognized,[26] fitting the spirit of the time as Jesuit father François Grasset accentuated 20 corresponding points in their lives in 1625.

Poussin’s animation of the traditional ruinous execution of archeological quotes, results in a fusion of this past, the pharaonic culture, the present and the future in one single tableau. Like Miriam’s finger on her lips, that signals silence as an illustration of the episode in the Biblical story. At the same time the beckon is a coming alive of the hieratic sign of Isis’s son Horus, developed in Greaco Roman times as Harpocrates. The transformation of sculpture in flesh and blood therefore not set the past and future religion apart; it can rather be interpreted as ancient wisdom nourishing the future religion –Christianity. Harpocrates’s gesture evolved into a sign of wisdom of the mystery god Hermes (Trismegistos), granting Miriam insight to fathom her brother’s destiny;[27] although the original Bible text credits Moses’s mother for this awareness.

In conclusion, “pictori philosopho[28] Poussin mixes diverse figures of diverse meaning into a living setting to evoke an enigmatic reading of the story of Moses. This form of syncretism was coming from both Hellenist as Graeco-Roman sources, as well as contemporary literature and philosophy. Poussin translated these sources in a highly personal narrative. With her finger on the lips, Miriam reveals she understands her brother’s destiny coming from her knowledge rooted in the pagan past. She can thus incite Jochebed to fulfill the most difficult task a mother can be asked: the repudiation of her child. Her comforting references confirm Moses’s future as a grand prelude for Christianity.




*Many thanks to Liana De Girolami Cheney and Lisa Sharling.

[1] Charles G. Dempsey, “Poussin and Egypt”, The Art Bulletin 46 (1963), pp. 108-19; Malcolm Bull, “Notes on Poussin’s Egypt”, The Burlington Magazine Vol. 141, No. 1158 (1999), pp. 537-541.

[2] Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings, http://www. ashmolean.org/ash/objects

[3] In a letter to Chantelou: John Fleming and Hugh Honour, Art in context: Poussin: the Holy Family on the Steps, Allen Lane, London 1974, p. 90.

[4] Bätschmann detects a lack of contact between the princess and the child: Thermutis would rather signify reflective understanding, related to the painting Et in Arcadia Ego II; Oskar Bätschmann, Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, 1990, p. 73.

[5] Rudolf Arnheim, The power of the center: a study in composition in the visual arts. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1988, p. 187.

[6] Dempsey, op.cit., pp. 108-19.

[7] Ferdinand Hodler 1853-1918, Musée d’Orsay. Paris, 2016, p.3; http://www.musee-orsay.fr

[8] http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/objectofmonth/2005-11/relobjects.htm last consulted 25-4-2016.

[9] Dal Pozzo commissioned 19 drawings after the mosaic. The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo. Quaderni Puteani 4, British Museum, London 1993, pp. 115-18.

[10] Fleming and Honour, op.cit., p. 22.

[11] Ernst H. Gombrich, ‘Reynolds’s Theory and Practice of Imitation’, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. Phaidon Press, London, 1966, p. 133.

[12] For an overview: Anne Roullet, The Egyptian and egyptianizing monuments of Imperial Rome. Brill, Leiden, 1972.

[13] Mary Swetnam-Burland, ‘Egyptian objects, Roman contexts: a taste for Aegyptiaca in Italy’, Nile Into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World, Brill, Leiden, 2007, p. 113.

[14] Dempsey, op.cit., p. 110.

[15] Oil on panel, 37 x 51 cm. Private collection.

[16] Hugh Honour John Fleming, A World History of Art (Dutch version p.456)

[17] Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin. London 1958, p. 92.

[18] In my opinion Poussin follows Raphael’s revived Nile god as part of the pantheon in the ceiling painting ‘Psyche Received on Olympus’ (1517) in the Villa Farnesina, Rome: Liesbeth Grotenhuis, ‘An arm rest for the Nile’ SECAC conference, Sarasota, October 2014.

[19] Together with the lock of hair at the side of his head and being nude.

[20] Corpus Hermeticum. 1:6.

[21] NT Acts of Apostles: (Acts VII:22)

[22] Thomas Browne, Religio Medici. 1643, sect.34:49.

[23] Dal Pozzo was informed in a letter (September 10 1633) of the burgeoning activities of Athanasius Kircher; Paula Findlen, ‘The last man who knew everything… or did he?’, Athanasius Kircher: the last man who knew everything. Psychology Press, New York, London 2004, p. 13.

[24] When Ficino wrote his foreword by the Medici’s translation of ‘The book of Hermes Trismegstus’ in 1481, Hermes is called the first father of theology.

[25] Manuscripts of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 270 A and Bibliothèque National, Paris MS fr. 9561; Dempsey, op.cit., p. 113.

[26] Nicolas Milovanovic, ‘Poussin et Moïse’, Poussin et Dieu. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2015, p. 334.

[27] Following the biblical commentator Ibn Ezra who postulated Miriam prophetically informed her mother that putting the arch in the water was the correct course of action for the moment. Shera Aranoff Tuchman, Sandra E. Rapoport, Moses’ Women, KTAV Publishing House Inc., Jersey City, 2008, pp.51-58.

[28] Original formulae on a buste of Poussin, now replaced by ‘pictori gallo’; Nicolas Milovanovic and Mickaël Szanto, ‘Poussin et Dieu?’, Poussin et Dieu. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2015, pp. 17- 19.

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