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The First Book of Samuel

The Plague of Ashdod

Nicolas Poussin (1594 -1665). Musée du Louvre. Paris. 1630.

Eli was Judge and High Priest of Israel while Samuel grew up. Eli’s sons were wicked and did not respect God. So God condemned Eli’s family. In that time, the Philistines mustered to make war on Israel. The Philistines fought fiercely and they defeated Israel. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinelas, died. Also, the Ark of Israel’s God was captured. The Philistines took the Ark from Ebenezer to Ashdod. They put the Ark in the temple oft heir own god, Dagon.

Each morning the statue of Dagon lay face down on the ground before Yahweh’s Ark until even Dagon’s head and hands were severed. Yahweh brought ravage to Ashdod and he afflicted its people with tumours. When the people were thus oppressed, they went to speak to the Philistine generals and demanded that the Ark be taken away to Gath. But the same afflictions happened at Gath, so the Ark was taken to Ekron. The Ekronites were afraid of the power of Yahweh’s Ark. In Ekron too, the people died or were afflicted with tumours. The Ark of Yahweh stayed with the Philistines for seven months. Then the Philistines could hold on no longer. They took two milk cows and harnessed them to a cart on which they placed the Ark. They made golden replica of their tumours and of the rats that had ravaged their country and placed them in a box, as a gift to Yahweh. Of the golden tumours there was one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, for Ashkelon, for Gath and one for Ekron. The cows went to Beth-Shemesh, to the field of Joshua. The Levites then gave burnt offerings to Yahweh. The men of Beth-Shemesh took the Ark to Kiriath-Jearim, where the Jews consecrated Eleazar to guard the Ark. Twenty years later only, Samuel started to speak out and he banished all the foreign gods, the Baals and Astartes. The Israelites mustered, fought the Philistines and defeated them at Mizpah.

Nicolas Poussin made a painting of the plague of Ashdod. Poussin was born in 1594, in a small village of the Seine River in Normandy. Around 1612 he left his village, deciding to learn to paint. He studied with minor painters in Rouen and Paris. He learned to admire Raphael’s pictures and yearned to go to Rome. With the help of Giambattista Marino, an Italian poet at the court of Queen Maria de Medici, he succeeded in going there. He became gradually known in Rome, having maecenasses like Cassiano del Pozzo, the secretary to Cardinal Barberini. He took on themes of classic mythology, but painted these still in the exuberant Baroque style that was so prized in Rome. He admired the darker tones and full colours of the Venetian painters, and especially the way Titian painted. In the mid 1630’s his style changed to more serene, solemn, clear, Classicist depictions. Since Poussin gained fame in Rome, Cardinal Richelieu tried to bring Poussin back to the court of the King of France. In 1640 Poussin did return to France, but he could not thrive in the intrigues of the Parisian court and he could not repeat the successes he had obtained easily in Rome. So after a year and a half he left Paris again for Rome. Poussin continued to work in Rome and he died there in 1665.

The ‘Plague of Ashdod’ is still one of the very baroque pictures of Poussin, in which many figures are engaged in feverish activity around the Ark. Very many figures were drawn in all attitudes and gestures, showing the horrors of a city afflicted by the plague.

The mood of the picture is Venetian. Poussin painted in colours that have the same tone and intensity, though they show different hues. The brown, orange, and broken white colours dominate, not unlike in some paintings of Tintoretto and Titian. The only outstanding colour is the blue of the sky but here also many hues support the general shades. Overall, the impression is as if the sun has dimmed its light and the gloom of oppression colours the city brown-red. The haze of the plague is also in the air and in the light. The mood is thus dirty, dark, filled with the sand of the desert.

We see a splendid and rich city, with large and huge, colonnaded buildings and temples. Dagon’s temple stands to the left, but on the right also stairs lead to a temple. The Philistines placed the Ark of Yahweh’s Covenant in Dagon’s temple, in the open space between two columns so that all the time would wee the result of the victory of the Philistine warriors. Dagon’s statue has fallen down, like is said in Samuel’s Book face down. Its marble head and hands lie severed on the floor of the temple. A lower frieze of the building depicts the battle between the Philistines and the Jews. A man in white, a priest of Dagon, shows the destroyed statues of Dagon to people hulled in cloaks, to the generals of the Philistines. He points, and obviously complaints on what the Ark has done to the Philistine god. The generals discuss around the priest and we see their gestures of the arguing and their disputes. They have won the Ark in battle; the Ark in Ashdod is the symbol by excellence of their might and domination over the Jews. They have offered the god’s ark to Dagon. How can they possibly return the symbol of their victory? They would loose all that was won. Nicolas Poussin gave an oriental note to the bystanders since some of them wear white turbans. The scene around the priest is one of a meeting, of the Philistines arguing over the fate of the Ark. The scene can be considered separately from the rest of the painting. The view and organisation of Poussin’s painting becomes more evident after discerning this central scene around the Ark. Here is an assembly of Philistine chiefs discussing what to do with the Ark and wondering about its powers. In front of this scene, towards the viewer, and unfolding over the entire lower border of the painting, Nicolas Poussin showed the horrors of the plague.

The plague of Ashdod is a long horizontal band that occupies the lower part of the frame. Poussin placed a dead or dying woman on the ground, in the middle of the lower border, and he painted this figure in the broken white colours of death to draw the first attention of the viewer to this scene. The woman lies down and all the other figures in that scene hence look at her. The contours of the heads of this crowd form an open V structure, the lowest point of which is on the woman. This then opens up a view for the other scenes behind. The people in the front might be just one family, the mother of which is dying. The ‘Plague of Ashdod’ is still a painting of the early period of Poussin, so he showed the grief of the personages very dramatically, without restraint. On the right the people bow their heads, hide their faces in their hands, kneel or cry out their fears and beat a fallen column in revolt yet in weakness. The husband of the dying woman bows over his wife. He tries to touch her in a last farewell, but this touching could be dangerous so he has to hold his hand away. He seems to bless one of his baby children, who will now surely die also since it still seeks its mother’s breast. Another child lies already dead next to the mother.

Poussin drew standing figures on the right, so to construct the V composition he had also to draw a standing personage on the left. He painted this man with a wide cloak so that he well balances the two figures of the right. Poussin painted that man with a blue cloak, which contrasts with the orange tunic on the right, but also here we find a little blue in the robe of a woman behind the front figure, whereas the orange tunic of the man on the left answers the orange of the right part... So Poussin used the same hues on left and right, merely permuting a little their areas.

The man standing on the extreme left also looks to the left side. He looks more or less downward, to another man that fell down, but in doing that he draws attention to the left side. Also the people on the right side look in that direction, and it is of course on this left side that sands the Ark. Poussin guides the viewer’s eyes from the dying woman in this way, in a growing movement to the figures on the right, then to the men on the left in the striking blue colours, upwards towards the Corinthian columns, between which stands the Ark, the true main subject of the picture and the cause of the plague.

Remark the gesture of the man on the left: Poussin showed his surprise, his turning away from the central horror scene, the fear and the act of abandoning.

In this central scene of the plague, a very baroque Poussin was at work, showing in the most direct way of poises of the figures the strong emotions of the people. Such is not really a Classicist stance. Poussin would learn with age to depict emotions in a less overt way, more subtly. He showed emotions also on the Ark itself, since we see that the golden statues on the Ark are sculptures of mourning figures.

The scene before the Ark, with the assembly of the council of the Philistines and the priest of Dagon, is a closed group of figures. These people are wealthy. They are the notables of the town and the generals of the army and while they speak and argue, they seem to remain oblivious of the tragedy around them. To the right of the frame, opposite the council, dead people are being brought up the stairs of a temple and on the monumental stairs another figure has fallen down to die. Remember how in the front scene, on the left side, a man with a blue cloak seemed to pass cautiously between the dying. A man in blue also runs up the stairs of the temple on the right, to seek refuge from the plague. Here we have cowardice, people trying to save their lives and abandoning Ashdod to its fate. Thus Poussin also brought symmetry in his themes.

Nicolas Poussin’s front theme of the horrors of the plague opens with its V structure to the council of Ashdod. Behind the council, and using the Roman architectures on both sides, Poussin painted one of the most powerful views of perspective of his entire oeuvre. All the lines of the buildings of the lane flow towards a low point on the ground of the far square, to a point situated a little to the left of the base of an obelisk. This point is skewed to the left of the painting and it is almost, but not exactly, on of the Golden Mean points of the frame. That allowed Poussin to draw a few more details on the right scene of the temple stairs. Here he showed a scene of less confusion, with fewer figures, with a few trees and with maybe the king of the Philistines contemplating from the loggia of his palace the disasters that happen to his city. Poussin rarely painted such elaborated backgrounds and we remember large streets of Rome with high building, which resemble much this view. Poussin may have had such views in his mind, felt them very strongly and used them as an occasional background for his pictures.

Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Plague of Ashdod’ is a painting of the artist’s early period. It is a picture that is Baroque in expression and that brings the emotions fully over to the viewer in a very ostentatious way, a way that the contemporary Romans of Poussin’s days may have appreciated much. Poussin showed the violent emotions in the most blatant way in this picture. What could be more appealing than a dying mother with a dead child next to her, a crying baby seeking out her breast, her helpless husband stricken with grief and touching her gently in a last goodbye? Yet, beneath this show of emotions a string intellect was at work and that intellect ordered, organised, and composed the structure of the picture in its various parts. Poussin used a composition that is not so easily read, on which his narrative is not so powerfully founded as he could realise later in his career, but which keeps the interest of the viewer on the picture. Poussin drew an impressive perspective of a lane he might have seen in Rome and then filled with ancient architectures in his imagination. It is always surprising to find in Baroque paintings strong structure, and that is certainly the case – though still in a minor way – with Poussin’s ‘Plague of Ashdod’. Nicolas Poussin’s evolution towards order, clarity of depiction, could not but grow with age, as he learned by himself and experimented in views. No picture of Poussin leaves an interested viewer without admiration.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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