On Poussin, History, and Prophecy
In 1642 Poussin created a frontispiece for a book of sacred writing, the Biblia Sacra, published in Paris. The illustration was engraved by Claude Mellan. It is a profoundly mysterious illustration. It features three figures. On top is God himself, vaulting from a sacred aureole of light towards the picture plane, as if physically enacting the divine power of the Word. Below and to the left is a conventional iconographic figure of the time, Historia or the angel of history, with wings, a quill pen, an open book. She looks back over her shoulder, away from God and away from the book in which she is writing, while one foot is raised on a marble block so that the leg can support the heavy book as it is being inscribed. To the right of Historia is a figure shrouded eerily from head to foot. All is covered, even face and hands. It holds a closed book and, on top of it, a small Egyptian sphinx: Prophecy.
Oscar Bätschmann, in Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), traces the history of the iconography of the figure of history (see detail to right).
He comments: "Historia looks back to past times ... and holds her pen in a book whose opened page is in the dark. The contrast between this darkness and the aureole of light surrounding God turns the darkness into a metaphor for writing...."
Note also History's foot propped up on a stone block, to support the heavy book as she writes.
And what of the shrouded figure holding the sphinx, next to Historia under God in Poussin's picture? (See closeup to left.)
Bätschmann notes Poussin's own
remarks about the sphinx as a representation of the obscurity of enigmatic
things" (58). Perhaps this shrouded figure is here to reinforce
the paradox of God's light being encoded into a shadowed page: the Word
is writ on a page, darkly, and all interpretations are a darkened reflection
of this shadowed text. Such an interpretation in Poussin's frontispiece
casts a shadow over the entire Biblia Sacra that his illustration
is supposed to introduce. It is an illustration that does not illumine so
much as darken.
Poussin's depiction of History and Prophecy in the Biblia Sacra frontispiece contrasts in intriguing ways with related images in Poussin of prophets seated amidst ruins whose writings are guided by an angel. Two in particular are notable, from famous paintings: St. John at Patmos and St. Matthew and the Angel.
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