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