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?
It was painted by Poussin in Rome in 1630 as the city was shielding itself from the plague in Florence. The painting depicts a scene from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant was stolen in battle by the Philistines and brought to the city of Ashdod, where it was installed in the Temple of Dagon. God unleashed his wrath and as we see on the left of the composition, the statue of their god, Dagon, was destroyed. Its toppling came alongside a grave infliction for the population: plague. The ark and the collapsed idol shown to the left are the sole links to the biblical story. The architectural elements as well as the protagonists’ togas bring us to Antique Rome. An anachronism? Poussin’s compositions have always been seen as ‘in conscious sympathy with the humanist doctrine of Ut Pictura Poesis’. Therefore, why would he allow such a disconnection?
Sebastiano Serlio, Scena Tragica, 1611, woodcut (Courtesy of Archive.org)
Theatre was in a phase of intense development in the early 17th century. Stage design was made akin to architecture by Sebastiano Serlio in his treatise Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva. He reconsidered the theories of the Roman architect Vitruvius who mentioned three types of stages: scena tragica, scena comica and scena satyrica. When comparing his suggested illustrations of the scena comica and the scena tragica, it becomes apparent that Poussin chose the latter: an antique Roman city with an open perspective leading the eyes to an obelisk in the far distance.
From the outset, Poussin’s most tragic figure is the dead woman on the right of the composition. Her infant is trying to feed herself to her breast as her head is pushed away by a man who is covering his nose with his other hand; undoubtedly, pestilence is over the city. This gesture was certainly borrowed from Raphael’s Il Morbetto (The Plague) known through Marcantonio Raimondi’s print after Raphael. Yet, Poussin reinforced the tragic impact of the scene. The mother’s lascivious pose with her right arm raised emphasizes her youth and beauty by exposing her breast that is still appealing to the infant. Her complexion however leaves no doubt as to her death. This stark contrast is key to the construct of tragedy.
However, beyond the misery of an individual character, or the rats running in the city as corpses are being carried away, the painting itself becomes the enclosed theatre where the protagonists live. Locked into the scene, they act their part, the elite at their balcony looking down on the scene unfolding before their eyes. What the painting reveals is not that the death of one is tragic; the loss of one’s mother is a tragedy besides the occurrence of plague. The tragedy lays in the group of characters in the middle ground, astonished and confused. In front of the toppled icon, they suddenly grasp what is happening. They stare at each other wondering who could be next, who is already a walking dead? Camus’s description of humanity’s powerlessness in the face of death is essentially depicted centuries earlier by Poussin. Will they go on acting absurdly as Antonin Artaud suggested in his essay Theatre and Plague? Is the man on the left in his blue toga an ‘elegant [qui] se pomponne et va se promener sur les charniers (an elegant man who dolled himself up before a walk in a charnel house)’?
Humanity thrives thanks to its deep-rooted yet illusionistic sense of eternity. Artaud demonstrated that only theatre and plague make death part of life. In his essay he therefore echoes Poussin who froze a moment in time when the tragedy of the plague suspended all that society stood for. Reality has no part to play in these moments of pandemic; it is the reign of the surreal within a set of boundaries. Those boundaries may be borders or screens but they may well be a frame. One can only wait for them to be lifted and the idea of their limitation brings a promise: the theatre of life will resume beyond the limits of the canvas.