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The Institution of the Eucharist

The Institution of the Eucharist

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Musée du Louvre. Paris. 1640.

The synoptic Evangelists recall the institution of the Eucharist. We follow the account of Matthew.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples. “Take it and eat”, he said, “this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he handed it to them saying, “Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. From now on, I tell you, I shall never again drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.” G38

Nicolas Poussin was French. He was born in 1594 and left his home village to learn to draw and to paint in Rouen. Little is known of his years in France except that he was not successful in the beginning and out of poverty and hardships had to return to his parents’ home before going to Paris. French painting had not been very resplendent in the sixteenth century, not excelled in individuality. It had not been an example of powerful innovation. Art was mostly limited to the Parisian court and to the circle of magnificent palaces of the Ile de France. Foremost among these was Fontainebleau.

For the decoration of his palace of Fontainebleau king François I had called many Italian artists, among whom Rosso Fiorentino and Il Primatice to France. The palaces demanded light and intellectual scenes, not too violent in emotions, solemn scenes but nice, and depicting mythological heroes or antique hunting scenes. Austere scenes of Christianity were not too much in fashion. It may well be that because of this direction to lightness, clarity, simplicity in themes of antiquity that French painting became later also foremost a Classicist art.

Nicolas Poussin may have seen these pictures in Paris. He admired them and he longed for the source of their themes, Rome. It was not easy for him to get enough funds for the travel but in 1624, thirty years old and not particularly a successful artist in France; he arrived in Rome via Venice. He would remain in Rome until his death in 1665, helped by wealthy cardinals. From Rome out his fame reached France. Cardinal Richelieu who governed France for Louis XIII called him home in 1640. Poussin decorated the ‘Grande Galérie’ of the Louvre palace, but soon returned to Rome in 1642.

Nicolas Poussin is not the father of French Classicism. That honour should go to Simon Vouet who was four years older than Poussin was. But Poussin was certainly its most accomplished artist. Nicolas Poussin had a very strong personality to discover or quite naturally paint in his own way in the middle of the vortex of the Baroque period. The strong examples of diverse styles he saw were of genius artists like Caravaggio, Orazio Gentileschi, Bartolomeo Manfredi and the Bolognese artists like Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni. He may have seen Titian’s canvases as well as works of Paolo Veronese, Palma Vecchio and Palma Giovane in Venice. Titian, the Palmas and Veronese also painted many classical themes. Poussin took up the themes of his epoch but he added a very intellectual touch. More than in any other painter of the Baroque period we find in Poussin the intellectual painter of themes as universal images. Poussin was a scholar and a painter of the mind.

Nicolas Poussin had read many books of old Latin writers such as Virgil and Ovid. He did paint scenes from the life of Jesus and themes from the Old Testament but best known are his scenes of mythological antiquity. He composed these in novel ways and favoured allegories in which he could assemble many figures in new themes. He usually painted many or several figures in a picture and his scenes were always the products of profound reflection on life itself and on the place of the arts in life. Poussin was a visual philosopher. He could as well paint landscapes as imposing architectures or interior scenes. But his student Claude Gellée le Lorrain would better and more pursue the art of landscape painting. Like the greatest of all artists, like Michelangelo and Titian and Caravaggio, Poussin was interested in man. But he was interested not in the common man of France or Rome. He was interested in the universal man of the intellect.

Poussin lived in Rome and only returned to France for a brief time between 1640 and 1642. One of the first paintings he made in that period was ‘Jesus Christ institutes the Eucharist’. The picture was of course made for one of the great palaces of Louis XIII around Paris, for the castle of Saint Germain en Laye. The painting marvellously blends Baroque, Caravaggism and Classicism.

‘The Institution of the Eucharist’ is baroque in the curves of the cloaks of the apostles. The cloaks are depicted generously flowing around the bodies of the holy men, in ways as Rubens would not have able to better. All in these cloaks is movement. Movement of emotions can be found in the attitudes of the thirteen figures. Jesus makes a blessing sign with outstretched arm and hand, the blessing of which talks Matthew. The apostles express their feelings in obvious ways. One disciple holds his hands in prayers; another is knelt with the open arms of ecstasy. Several apostles hold their hands to their hearth in surprise; still others throw their arms to the heavens in wonder or in horror of unbelief. Movement, direct display of feelings, flowing curves associated with a profusion of various rich colours are all elements of the Baroque style and Nicolas Poussin knew how to apply the style elements to remain in the fashion of his days.

Poussin even used some style elements invented by Caravaggio for he situated the scene at evening, inside a hall lit by one hanging oil lamp. Thus Poussin painted the contrasts between the source of light and the play of shadows in the robes and cloaks of the figures. A single source point of light of course allowed the skill of the painter to be demonstrated, his mastering in depicting the play of shadows on figures and objects. Thus, Poussin combined the two new styles in painting that he had learned in Rome and presented an exercise in visual arts to his commissioners in a credible composition.

Nicolas Poussin however added his own more austere personality. He succeeded in adding the spirituality and epic of Classicist art as well, and his own reflections on the basis of Roman Catholic ritual. The scene is characterised by austere vertical lines. These lines can be seen in the high columns of the vast hall, in the long chain of the oil lamp that hangs from the ceiling and in the standing poses of Jesus and the apostles. Poussin broke with the traditional setting of the Last Supper pictures, which favour horizontal lines. Thus a more static, solemn feeling emanates from his picture. The setting in the Roman hall is a reference to antiquity and so are various other elements. Classic wisdom can be seen in the bearded faces of the men, including Jesus whose face is surrounded by the red-brown curling hair of a classical hero. The cloaks are worn like Roman togas.

The Eucharist scene is explicitly shown. Jesus presents the dish with the pieces of unleavened bread that are now the hosts. The chalice of wine is shown clearly in the middle. The symbolism is direct since the chalice that would hence represent Jesus’ blood is exactly under the point where the diagonals of the frame meet. Thus attention is drawn immediately to the chalice, the essence of the Eucharist. Above the chalice hangs the light of the Holy Spirit referring also to the words of Jesus, “I am the Light of the World”.

Admire the composition around the chalice. There are two groups of figures on each side. The colours of these figures respond in symmetry. On the right, Jesus wears a red cloak and Poussin knew this tradition; further on the right is an apostle with a blue cloak and then follows a yellow-brown colour area. The same sequence of colours is on the left of the chalice. Such symmetries are also to be found in the two apostles that are knelt. The structure of the painting also is very sound. The two disciples that are knelt are positioned along the two diagonals. Their heads are held upwards to the light, thus forming a triangle or pyramid that was of old the style element that secured solidity and stability in a picture. Furthermore, all masses are balanced on each side of the chalice. The result is a marvel of colours, of equilibrium between movement and static in the solemn restraint that fitted so well the character and reflection of Poussin.

If this ‘Institution of the Eucharist’ was one of the first pictures of Nicolas Poussin in his home France, it was a formidable masterpiece of a genius artisan that must have baffled experts. In a seemingly simple theme that was rendered in a transparent, clear scene, Poussin had succeeded to teach the various style elements of his time. He delivered a new view leaving the horizontality of preceding pictures behind. And on top of that he could show how profound he was able to think about Roman Catholicism for contrary to most of other ‘Last Supper’ paintings, Poussin chose to show the sacrament itself.

The sacraments are symbols or signs that were first taken by Roman Catholic theology as instituted by Jesus himself. The sacraments were mysteries that brought inner spiritual grace. There are seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, accepted as dogma at the Council of Trent that lasted from 1545 to 1563, in defiance of the Reformation that reduced the number of sacraments. The sacraments were Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance (confession and absolution), the Anointing of the Sick (extreme unction), Marriage and the Holy Orders. The Council of Trent stated that Christ was entirely present both in the consecrated wine and the consecrated bread but left it to the Pope to decide of whether or not the chalice should be granted to the laity. Nicolas Poussin made the chalice his central item.

Nicolas Poussin made this painting probably as an introduction to the French Court. He showed most of his skills in composition, colours and erudition. The painting bears so much all the ingredients of the new arts. Yet he was not pleased in Paris and soon returned back to Rome. Here his art was more appreciated. The French Royal Court later would buy many of his works made in Italy.

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