Poussin, History, and Prophecy (2)

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. Here is a reproduction of a detail from Poussin's St. Matthew and the Angel, followed by an even closer closeup.

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Both Poussin's angel of history in the Biblia Sacra and his Sts. Matthew and John have a foot raised upon a marble block, the better to steady the act of writing history. But in other ways these figures contrasted markedly. Matthew is mortal but is guided by an angel, who points at his text and either shows him what to write or offers him commentary upon it. While this occurs the Saint appears to be looking directly in the angel's eyes, his quill poised for more. The written page is also this time luminous with light. All of which suggests that in the St. Matthew picture at least the troubling doubts about both the transmission and intepretation of holy Word and writ that vex the Biblia Sacra frontispiece are not present.

As he receives instruction from the angel, St. Matthew is surrounded by classic ruins---fragments of columns and other monuments to fallen classical magnificence. In this picture, as in Pannini's image of St. Paul preaching, Christian revelation contrasts with the ruins of the classical past---and the contrast is drawn confidently and dramatically. St. Matthew is even able to make himself comfortable among the ruins as he works.

Poussin's St. John at Patmos painting adds a further nuance. Here at Patmos in Greece, no angel provides dictation or commentary; St. John is in a similar pose but appears to be drawing inspiration directly from the ruins themselves, from the great geometric blocks of fallen temples. He works steadily and surely, the only figure in the scene, and even seems slightly brighter, under a different light, than the surrounding landscape, as if his robes while he works are suffused with the light of his divine inspiration. Once again, no ambiguities seem to shadow his page.

What happens in the future of French art to this figure of the prophet/artist working among ruins?

More specifically, what happens to figures of prophecy and history when the depiction of history andruins undergoes a transformation in the early nineteenth century, with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt?

In brief, prophets in robes become hired scholars in tails, boots, and tophats; the ruins of Greece become the ruins of newly conquered Egypt, the land that is seen by the French as the origins of all civilization, including the Greek. And the prophet scripting the book of the new age becomes the agent of the rise of science, of archeology, and the alliance between these new regimes of knowledge and the new imperial ambition of France in Africa. These new writers and artists transcribing ruins represent a new prophecy, testifying to the ambition of Napoleon's to match Alexander the Great in conquering all the known world and absorbing what was seen as the source of history and civilization itself, the world of ancient Egypt. Matthew meets the French academy.

For more on this modern transformation of ruins and prophecy,
read on

or go back to Pannini Introductory page, the Table of Contents.