Poussin’s Ordination (1640’s)
The highlight of Christie’s upcoming Old Masters sale in London (Dec. 7th 2010) is Poussin’s Ordination. It is a good example of how, if you are aware of certain common themes in art and common methods of composition, you can often see what experts never have. Not even when the price tag, as here, is over $30 million. [It failed to sell at that price, later sold privately to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas] Let's take a look.
The scene seems simple enough, Christ handing over the keys of the Church to St. Peter watched by his apostles. Strange features, though, long noted by experts, warn that Poussin is not illustrating a conventional story.1 Yet the strangest feature is the landscape which Christie's notes is distinctly different from the other landscape in the series.2 That should have alerted them that the highest rock, outlined against the sky, resembles the tip of a nose. In fact, the landscape is the most important feature of the painting, without which the image cannot be understood. Turn the painting on its side and you will see what I mean.
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Look first at the image on the left. What you should see is the prototypical profile of Christ's head facing left behind the main trees. The tip of his nose is the outcrop of rock and his parted lips the foliage below. The contour of his nose runs up unseen behind the trees towards his forehead which is even less distinctly identified. The eye is clearly positioned by a small eyeball-like mound behind two trees which cross their trunks. Use the diagram to help guide you and click on the image itself to enlarge it.
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The discovery changes the image from an illustration of a Bible story to a visual poem on spirituality and the creative moment. The foreground scene of Christ handing over the keys to St. Peter now takes place inside the mind of this "larger Christ" looking upwards. To indicate that this Christ is an aspect of Poussin himself, the artist shaped the tree trunks over Christ's "eye", the eye of the artist, into the shape of his own initial N, for Nicolas.
See conclusion below
More Works by Poussin
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Nov 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.