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.

Alpheus is the appropriate river god to have grace this scene because he is associated with love and thus with Arcadia. Ovid's Metamorphoses tells his story. He pursued a beautiful young woman, Arethusa, who swam in his waters. She appealed to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, to escape him and was transformed also into water. But to aid her escape Artemis split the earth underground between Greece and Sicily, allowing Arethusa to flow through this hidden passage and emerge as a spring in Sicily, the source of some of the purest and most sought-after waters on the island, a spot now sacred to Artemis and named after Arethusa. But Alpheus followed, intermingling his waters with hers, and legend has it that a wooden cup dropped in the river Alpheus in Greece can re-emerge in Sicily. (Cf. Edith Hamilton's Mythology.)

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.)

For Poussin in Et in Arcadia Ego, the presence of the river god Altheus signifies the flowing and vivifying presence of the arcadian tradition in Greece and Rome (and also in Poussin's time). But he also stands for a kind of eternity in marked contrast to the mortals and lovers who try to read the writing on the tomb.

 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.

[graphic here]

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.)

A final thought on the role of the river god on the margins of the action in Poussin's The Finding of Moses and other paintings. In contrast to the main action, which depicts the moment in which Moses enters history, the river god on the margin seems to retreat back into eternity, into the pure act of flowing, into time's infinite potential rather than actual possibilities. And at his feet the sphinx stares off to the right, far beyond the edges of the canvas, in a direction precisely opposite the way our eyes are guided toward the picture's dramatic center. Together these enshadowed figures suggest the mystery that flows under figuration itself, the eternally unknown realms of meaning inside the Moses' (or anyone's) story, the riddle and the unanswerable question that will lie behind all of Moses' prophetic acts and specific commandments inscribed in stone.

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