Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod

Or the suspended theatre of life

by Reine Okuliar | 9 June 2020

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague at Ashdod, 1630, oil on canvas, 148 cm × 198 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris (Courtesy of the Louvre)

In these times of pandemic, as half of the world population is confined in their homes because of Covid-19, there has been a revived interest for literature around plague, notably Albert Camus’s La Peste that saw its sales surged. In Camus’s novel, the doctors that first notice unexplainable deaths are initially denied a say in the matter before news and fear spread fear like wildfire. This may sound strangely familiar and yet, one can go back further in history and find such similarities. When the plague hit Florence in 1630, its elite swiftly fled to their villas, an idea that brings to mind all the city-dwellers who queued in their cars to reach their second homes before the lockdown was officially announced. 

Why are we drawn to such comparison? Is it the sheer concept of a lockdown that brought such an interest? Besides the walls of our own homes, virtual walls have indeed risen all over the world around cities, regions, and countries as they did around Milan in 1576.  Or is it that as the concept of social relation seems further and further removed, culture plays an amplified role of connector? Music performed on balconies could become the symbol of this period demonstrating art’s therapeutic abilities. This phenomenon is far from being new either. In 1585, the French physician Ambroise Paré advised: ‘It is important to remain in good spirits, in the good company of just a few friends, and to listen sometimes to songs and musical instruments, and occasionally to read or listen to some pleasant reading.’  Besides the soothing role of culture, in the end, we also turn to it to find answers, to understand how to cope with a situation new to us but known to them. 

In the same spirit, this March 17th, Jonathan Jones published an article in the Guardian showing how great masters of the past had represented the black death. These included Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Salvator Rosa, and Albrecht Dürer. Nicolas Poussin, however, was nowhere to be found despite his masterpiece in the Louvre in Paris, The Plague at Ashdod (1630). Since then, a question has been haunting me: what can we learn from Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod?