Nicolas Poussin

Holy Family in Egypt

Holy Family in Egypt
(click image to zoom-in)
Author: Nicolas Poussin
Painting, Oil on canvas, 105x145 сm
Origin: France, 1655-1657

In the 1640s and 1650s Poussin produced a number of paintings on historical and biblical subjects, which he treated in an entirely new vein, expressing in them his own reflections on the themes.

The apocryphal Gospel of pseudo-Matthew describes the miraculous stilling of the thirst and satisfying of the hunger of the Holy Family on the way onto Egypt. Generally the Holy Family was depicted surrounded by angels bringing fruit and flowers. Poussin moved the setting to the square of an Egyptian town and instead of angels he depicted ordinary inhabitants ? a young man and two girls. He particularly emphasized this, calling the painting ?The Madonna in Egypt?or ?The Egyptian Madonna?. In correspondence with Pierre de Chantelou, who commissioned the painting, the artist describes in depth his work on the canvas and explains many details. He writes, for example, that the depiction of the procession of priests heading for the temple of Serapis and carrying an ark of relics, and also the dwelling of the sacred ibex and the tower with the concave roof for collecting dew were not his own invention, but rather taken from the famous mosaic at the shrine of Fortuna in Palestrina. ?I placed all this in the painting so as to enjoy the novelty and variety and to show that the Madonna depicted is in Egypt.?

The sources for such a treatment of the subject should probably be sought in Poussin's biography. Although he spent much of his life in Italy, it is nevertheless a constant refrain in his letters that he felt himself to be an outsider there. This feeling was also due to the hostile relationship between France and Italy, and therefore the idea of mutual understanding between people of different nationalities and faiths, in the form of a joyful meeting between foreign refugees and hospitable locals, had a special relevance to the artist. The place of the miracle is taken by ordinary human kindness that draws no distinction between nationalities and beliefs.

Personage: Christ, Mary, Joseph
Style: Classicism
Source of entry: Stroganov Palace Museum, Leningrad, 1931
Theme: The Bible and Christianity

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