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Christ heals a Deaf-Mute Man

Landscape with Christ healing the Deaf-Mute

Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674). University of Michigan Museum of Art. Ann Arbor. Ca. 1650-1655.

Philippe de Champaigne was bon in Brussels, Belgium, in 1602. He received the first training of his given talent of painting from the master Jacques Fouqières (1580/1590-1659). There were many fine painters in Brabant at that time however, especially in Antwerp, so Fouqières and de Champaigne left together for Paris in 1621, where the French royal court grew in splendour. De Champaigne was merely nineteen years old then. Yet he rapidly obtained commissions to work on decorations of Parisian palaces, such as the Palais du Luxembourg. There, he worked with another painter, somewhat older than he, a man called Nicolas Poussin, who would a few years later leave Paris for Rome. With Nicolas Poussin, de Champaigne lived at the Collège de Laon in 1622. Philippe de Champaigne learned mostly landscape painting from Fouqières, and also from Poussin, even though Poussin was in that period more interested in scenes of figures prominently set against a hidden background. De Champaigne gained a reputation as a fine painter, who also always remained sufficiently solemn to be well accepted by the then still strict Parisian courtiers. De Champaigne had worked in the Luxembourg Palace under the direction of Nicolas Duchesne and after a while he married that artist’s daughter so that he had a ready entry to Duchesne’s sponsors. In 1628 de Champaigne’s talent had become so well known that he was remarked by the French Queen, Marie de Medicis. He became her court painter and from that moment on his career was established. In 1648, when the French Academy was formed, de Champaigne was one of its fourteen founding members and in 1653 also one of its professors. He painted for Cardinal Richelieu and for King Louis XIII, in whose favour he remained. By then he was among the three or four most prominent painters of France, receiving commissions from Parisian churches and monasteries as well as from the French Royal Court. It is from that period that dates his ‘Christ healing the Deaf-Mute’.

De Champaigne was a painter from whom it is said that more than any other he epitomizes French Classicism. Much of that categorisation comes from the fact hat in our times mostly only one of his paintings is reproduced in books of art: his ‘Ex-Voto’ picture made in his later years, in 1662, a picture in the Louvre, in which he portrayed two nuns of the Convent of Port-Royal. The nuns are the Mother-Superior Agnès Arnauld and his own daughter, the nun Catherine de Sainte Suzanne Champaigne. De Champaigne’s daughter had fallen gravely ill in 1660 and became progressively paralysed but she recovered after a novena of prayers (nine days of praying) and the care of the Mother-Superior. De Champaigne was henceforth even more influenced by his belief in the pre-established ordnance of the world by God and in the convent Mother Catherine talked to him about how all was ordained, his own fate as well as the fate of his daughter. These thoughts on the fixed world were from the Jansenist movement that centred on Port-Royal. De Champaigne’s style evolved to the austerity and fatality that Jansenism inspired. The strictness can be remarked in most of his portraits of those times and these are usually reproduced in printing. His portraits are for instance of Cardinal Richelieu, of court people living around the Cardinal and around King Louis XIII. So it should be no wonder that rigidity and dry, solemn tones are the main impression we receive from de Champaigne’s portraits. At the end of his life he even retired to Port-Royal and lived in the convent. Now he only painted portraits of his family and friends, such as the Arnauld family, as well as religious themes. His later work is much more sober than the paintings he made in the middle of his life. He died in 1674.

De Champaigne was not merely the strictly religious painter. He had a very long career and absorbed many elements from Baroque art, from the style of his Flemish colleagues such as Pieter Paul Rubens. He had broad interests and he painted in his long career many subjects. Among these were biblical scenes set in wonderful landscapes. Philippe de Champaigne’s career spanned about fifty years and in that period he was a contemporary of some of the most famous French painters ever, such as Simon Vouet (1590-1640), Georges Lallemant (1575-1636), Claude Vignon (1593-1670), Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639), the Le Nain brothers, Charles Le Brun (1616-1690) and the French painters in Rome like Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Gellée called Claude Lorraine (1600-1682). All these painters and Philippe de Champaigne formed the Golden Age of French painting, and that age was Classicist. Later painters were Pierre Patel (1605-1676), Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671), Lubin Baugin (1612-1663), Jacques Stella (1597-1657), Laurent de la Hyre (1606-1656), Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655) and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (136-1699). In such a company Philippe de Champaigne could nevertheless uphold his reputation, supported and protected by the French royal court.

Mark wrote that Jesus returned from Tyre over Sidon to the Lake of Galilee. A deaf man was brought to Jesus. The people asked Jesus to put his hands on the man and to cure the deafness. Jesus drew the man away from the crowd. He put his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue with spittle G38 . Then Jesus looked to the skies, said ‘Ephphatha’ to the man, which means ‘to be opened’. The man could hear and speak again after this. Jesus ordered the people to tell to nobody about the miracle, but the crowd proclaimed it everywhere. Mark tells this story before the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the bread. The miracle of the deaf-mute is one of the early miracles of Jesus. Jesus does not want these deeds to be known, and the handicap of the man was still a modest one to be healed. Jesus would do much more powerful miracles, such as raising people form the dead, later, so one feels the growing strength and confidence in the man Jesus here. The miracle happens, but Christ does not want the people to know about it. Yet, Jesus’ fate advances inexorably and the people spread the news of the miracle. Jesus will not escape his ultimate fate. The miracle has always appealed to writers, priests and artists. Are we not all to some extent deaf people? Also, here is an immediate contact between the human and Jesus since Jesus, the divine, touches the deaf-mute and brings his own saliva on the man’s tongue. Philippe de Champaigne used this theme for his painting, and the miracle is also recalled in the readings of the Catholic liturgy.

In the lower right corner of Philippe de Champaigne’s painting we see the scene of the miracle. The deaf-mute kneels before Christ and Jesus holds his hands on the man. Jesus looks to the heavens and heals the man. It is exactly above Jesus, to enhance Jesus’ appeal to God, that de Champaigne painted the brightest parts of his picture. The light of the sun plays on the water of the river and bright yellow hues mark an opening in the dark forest to where Jesus’ thoughts ascend to the heavens. De Champaigne however only hints at the light for we see no very bright, silvery rays break through the clouds. Merely a diffused light opens the sky above Jesus. The emotions of the scene are thus only hinted at, not thrown in dramatic effects.

Jesus is clad in white and light blue robes, the colours of purity. He is accompanied by two men who might be in de Champaigne’s view two apostles. One of these wears a magnificently red cloak. This very bright colours and hard hues attract the eye in the picture to this man and from there to another detail of purity in the picture, for the apostle’s left arm points to swans in the river. These white swans are symbols of the candour of the deaf-mute. Only because of the purity of the man’s soul can Jesus heal the deaf-mute. De Champaigne remained very faithful to Mark’s story, for he also painted figures coming from over a path along the river, towards the scene. Yet, like in Mark, these people only arrive and they hidden behind the trees of the forest. In the far, more people run towards the scene, realising Mark’s words that the crowd grew and passed on the news of the deeds of Christ.

Philippe de Champaigne did not paint the scene near a lake. His picture shows not a lake with barren rocks of a desert and not the exotic bushes and trees that one might expect around the lake of Galilee. He painted the story in a setting that would be more familiar for Parisians. We see a forest and a river among the trees, maybe a scene that could be along the Seine River, which meanders through the plains between Paris and the sea. So, Parisians might feel closer to the miracle than by reading and imagining the Bible story. That of course would emphasise the essence of the religious message. On the river also, but in the shadows of the trees, but near the swans, is a man in a boat, on the other side of the river. The boat may bring people from one side of the river to the other, as would exist more often in those times. This signifies a change of life in the symbols of paintings, and this of course is what happens to the deaf-mute man. Philippe de Champaigne added this subtle symbol of transition in his picture, for us to discover.

The overall impression we have of the painting is of a mellow nostalgia. That impression is created of course by the subdued colours and the mass of the forest trees on the river sides. Soft brown and darker greens dominate the picture. De Champaigne damped down all hues and especially the green colours. This is a characteristic feature of the colouring of French Classicist paintings. John Constable would have to fight hard a hundred years and more later, to show bright green hues again, and the Impressionist painters of course brought the trends to pure colours to the extreme by using pure, very bright hues in their landscapes. Yet, the overall effect of de Champaigne’s art is one of fine intimacy and restfulness, the impression one would expect from a picture hanging in a stately room. Brighter, baroque colours are however also in the picture, on Jesus and on the men around Him. This contrast draws the eye regularly back to this place when the viewer looks at the painting. De Champaigne knew very well how to balance the subdued and darker colours of the forest trees’ foliage by the purer hues of the small scene of figures.

All the details of the scene of the healing of the deaf-mute, as well as the details of the foliage of the luxurious forest, are nicely painted. De Champaigne delivered not a rapid-and-easy picture. He obviously worked for a long time on this painting, deploying all his skills as a painter, so that the result would be up to his reputation. Pictures like this are little gems of craftsmanship and should have been a joy for any collector. De Champaigne’s skills were not only in colouring, of course. The French Academy still gave preponderance to line and structure in a picture, before colour. De Champaigne used the diagonals of the frame. He used the diagonals rather less than more, however, to soften a little the effects of too strong structure of design. The river flows along the left diagonal, but that line is lowered down to the right lower corner, towards the healing scene. The river then bends to the left, emphasising just a little the right diagonal. The forest, on the farther side of the river, is drawn into the left triangle formed by the two diagonals of the frame, but de Champaigne painted in more trees here than such a triangle would allow so that he could lead the viewer’s attention to the details of the foliage. The forest forms a dark mass in the picture. This mass balances the bright colours of the Christ scene and also the light colours descending from the heavens that suggest the divine intervention.

The ‘Healing of the Deaf-Mute’ is thus in structure and in colour a well-thought out picture, in which we find more rational design than blatant show of emotions. Yet, de Champaigne has softened too rigid structure and to neutral hues also. De Champaigne was a master in finding the right equilibrium between structure, line and colour. If we assume that the picture was to be hung in a large hall, one imagines the delight of the owner. The ‘Healing of the Deaf-Mute’ is a seemingly modest painting. It does not cry out; it is not dramatic and striking. It blends with the environment, yet it also invites being looked at with interest and delight by any viewer, inducing in that person feelings of calm and serenity. And the viewer will come back to look, because the painting is so inviting and nice, well- balanced and inspiring restfulness.

Philippe de Champaigne remained very much the Classicist painter in the ‘Healing of the Deaf-Mute’. There is no grandiose emotion in the picture and no overt show of drama. How different would Pieter Paul Rubens have painted such a scene! We would have seen the figures prominently covering the frame and overwhelming the view, not the landscape, and we would have seen the great joy and also the wonder of the deaf-mute at the moment of his healing, retrieving instantly the use of his ears and tongue. Pathos would be blatant in a Rubens’ picture, the colours striking and contrasting and rough. De Champaigne was more subtle.

De Champaigne’s picture is all that a Rubens would not be. Every patch of colour in de Champaigne’s picture fits in a pre-ordained place and in a structure. No hue intrudes on another hue and contrasts out of place. Line predominates. The narration is painted in a corner of the painting, as if de Champaigne wanted to state that life is not so important, after all, compared with the grandeur of nature. Still, de Champaigne emphasises the Christ scene with brighter colours, as if to recognise also the importance of pure hues in a picture. This contrasting visual experience however does not destroy the mood of the picture. De Champaigne had a softened design in his head of the meandering river, and then he placed the figures and the landscape according to his idea of masses of colour. He used marvellous shades of colour, which are especially very rich in the foliage of the trees of the forest and he did not shy away from also using the very bright hues on his figures. De Champaigne painted the ‘Healing of the deaf-mute’ when he was in his forties, at the height of his art and his reputation and before he became more austere in his work. For all of de Champaigne restraint, the picture is evidently poetic in visual experience and a jewel of a picture.

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