River Gods in Pannini and Poussin
|Poussin's first Et in Arcadia Ego painting, c. 1629-30, includes a figure identified by some commentators as the river god Alpheus in the lower right. The main action of the canvas features rustics contemplating a tomb whose writing tells them `et in Arcadia ego,' that death too (as well as beauty) lives in Arcadia. Peripheral to the main action, in the lower right corner of the picture, his back to the viewer, Alpheus waits and watches water spill from his urn:|
Alpheus' strong, naked back makes him seem allied with nature, not culture, and the flowing water seems to suggest the continuity and transciencethe flowingof time far beyond the brief span that will be occupied by the rustics' presence in this scene, or even in their lifetimes in Arcadia. The god is at home on this spot, he isn't going anywhere; he and his urn were there before this scene occured and will be there after its little drama is played out.
An irony is in the story that Hamilton does not mention: Artemis the goddess of chastity protected Arethusa in one way but in another way she did not; the means of escape she provided also became the means by which the Greek river god could unite with the woman even more fully and more permanently than she feared.
This story is not known before Ovid's famous account of it in the Metamorphosis. It's not clear whether it has Greek sources or not, unlike many of Ovid's other stories in the Metamorphosis, which clearly do have been passed down to him from Greek tradition. But this apparently precendent-less story is one of the ones that most overtly seems to represent the cultural connections between Greek and Roman culture as the Romans understood them: a deep and powerful intermingling contributes to the "purity" of the Italian spring. The story also suggests that some of the most powerful connections are not the obvious ones but the ones hidden underground.)
Even more suggestive is Poussin's later work, The Finding of Moses (1647). The focus of the painting is on the cluster of Egyptian women at the center of the scene exclaiming over the baby boy (Moses) who has just been discovered at the Nile's edge.
To the right, in shadow rather than highlighted, sitting rather than standing, is a massive figure leaning on an urn with water spilling from it. Near him is the figure of a sphinx, equally impassive to the drama unfolding nearby. This male figure is identified as the god of the river Nile. Having aided in Moses' rescue and delivered him into the future, where he can change the course of history in the name of prophecy, the Nile river god retires to the margin of the scene just at the moment when Moses' prophetic life begins. (This iconography is at least as old as the Renaissance. A similar figure is part of a frieze near the stairs leading up to Michelangelo's Capitolene Museum in Rome. To view a photo of this sculpture and a close-up, click here.)
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