Unknown Artist Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination
c.1694 – c. 1724
Oil on Canvas 182.5cm x 127cm (in frame 202cm x 146cm)
Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination was purchased by Artemisia from Belgravia, St. Julian’s, Malta in 2018. It is known that the painting formed part of a Maltese private collection prior to the auction however, the exact provenance before this point remains unknown therefore it is difficult to say for certain how the painting arrived to Malta.
The Sacrament of Ordination is a facsimile reproduction after the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin’s (1594 – 1665) work of the same subject, which was originally part of a series of
seven works depicting the seven sacraments. Albeit the artist being unknown, it is safe to infer that this artwork is a close contemporary of Poussin’s original work, as is evident upon further study of both the canvas’s technical preparation and the study of stylistic and artistic elements present in the artwork. It is also important to note that since Poussin did not have a workshop, it is more likely that this work was commissioned by a patron of the arts rather than being produced as a teaching exercise by a student. In fact, during the Baroque period in particular, copies were usually commissioned by patrons who were well informed about contemporary art; particularly those who wanted to show off their knowledge of current trends by commissioning reproductions of such important works of art. A working theory of how the work was copied can be ascertained through a comparative analysis between the copy, Poussin’s original and a reproductive engraving by Jean Pesne. Through comparison of the three works one is inclined to believe that the copyist used Pesne’s engraving as a reference for his work of art.
Sold by Cornette de Saint Cyr, Paris, France
This version of The Sacrament of Ordination is a facsimile reproduction after the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin’s (1594 – 1665) work of the same theme (fig. 1). The original painting is part of a series of seven works produced from 1644 to 1648, which represent the seven sacraments. Poussin’s series includes Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance, Matrimony, Ordination and Extreme Unction which are all observed in the Catholic faith.
This series, which was the second version of the seven sacraments produced by Poussin, was commissioned by French patron of the arts Paul Fréart de Chantelou.1 The work was produced in Italy and sent to Paris in August of 1647 where it would remain till 1798 when the series was acquired by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater.2 The series was eventually inherited by the Earls of Ellemere and all seven works are currently on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland as part of the Bridgewater Loan.3
The provenance of Poussin’s original series is important to note, as copies and reproductions of works of art were commonly commissioned as a means of owning a notable work of art during the Baroque period.4 Commissioning a copy, or asking artists to quote a particular work of art allowed the intellectual patron to show how well informed they were about the current trends in art. In fact, while the identity of the author of the copy remains unknown, it is well known that Poussin did not have a workshop and therefore, we can firmly say that this work was not produced as a teaching exercise (as was commonly done during the seventeenth century) but rather would have been independently commissioned. In fact, close analysis of the techniques used shows that it was produced around the same time as Poussin’s work. Our artwork still shows some signs of craquelure on the surface, despite the surface of the artwork having undergone a harsh and abrasive surface cleaning.
Fig. 5 Compositional analysis of Copy after Nicolas Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination.
Christ indicates heaven and earth with his hands while the apostles to the left of Christ and right of St. Peter, aide in the story-telling through their reaction. The picture displays order and harmony which one would expect from a copy of Poussin’s work.
The story of the Sacrament of Ordination comes from the book of Matthew 16:18-19 which reads:
‘…you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church… And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’
It represents the story of Christ giving the keys of heaven and earth to St. Peter, a story which is used to symbolise the rite of ordination – when one is ordained as a priest – in the Catholic faith. Poussin’s composition represents Christ holding two keys; one in his right hand pointed upwards – an indication of the heavens above – while the other key is in his left hand pointed downwards indicating the earth (fig. 5). True to typical representations of this story the figure of the apostle Peter is seen kneeling before Christ, ready to accept responsibility. The two figures are placed in the centre of the work to indicate their prominence (fig. 5). Placing the key figures of the narrative in the centre of the work was a common compositional device used by artists which aimed to draw the attention of the audience to the most important characters in the story. The placement of Christ and St. Peter is complemented by the placement of the
other disciples who flank the central figures on either side, six on the left and five on the right (fig. 5). The other figures in the picture do not distract from the main event – they are there to draw attention to it. They are depicted reacting towards the scene in front of them through their gestures and various expressions; some can even be seen to be talking to one another while pointing towards the figures in front of them – once again leading the viewer’s eye towards the protagonists. Finally, their frieze-like representation reflects Poussin’s love for order and harmony which is associated with artists who favoured Classicism over the horror vacui and dramatic gestures which was preferred by others, during the Baroque period.
The figures who occupy the immediate foreground are set against an architectural background which reflects the eclectic taste of the time informed by the Grand Tour. An early preparatory sketch by Poussin reveals that his original plan for the work was an architectural background which was inspired exclusively by Ancient Rome.5 The influence of Ancient Rome is a common story-telling element found in the works of Baroque artists who preferred painting in the classical style. His interest in Classicism was also influenced by the work of Renaissance artists such as Titian as well as the work of Raphael.
In essence both Poussin’s original and Our work share the same compositional elements however, some differences are worth noting. Poussin’s work is slightly smaller, measuring at 178 x 117cm in contrast with Our copy which is 182.5 x 127cm, 4cm on the length and 10cm on the width. Changes of such proportions are to be expected in such situations. On the topic of dimensions, it is interesting to note that the size is not smaller. Upon combining the larger dimensions along with the uncompromised technical quality of Our work, it is safe to deduce that the patron was not entirely restrained by budgetary concerns. In the original, Poussin appears to have given equal importance to the architectural background, the figure of Christ and St. Peter and his disciples, while the copyist chose to represent fewer details in the background and instead focused on the story happening in the foreground.
The change in colour is one of the most significant changes which is evident in the copy. Poussin’s sky features yellow, blue and white hues which are reminiscent of a day break. Our copyist chose grey hues to represent his sky. Poussin’s bright colour palette (influenced by the work of Titian and Raphel) is not emulated by Our copyist however this could be due to the age and condition of the work. It is also likely that he did not have access (financial or logistical) to the same high quality pigments that Poussin would have used which could also account for the change in brightness of the artwork. However, it is not only the tone of colours used but also the hue as is represented in the disciples’ robes. Only three of the twelve disciples share the same colours as the original, namely the figure of St. Peter who wears his typical yellow and blue garb as well as two figures to the left of Christ. This could represent the copyist’s use of his artistic licence however it could indicate that he was not working from Poussin’s original but rather the contemporary engraving by Jean Pesne (1623-1700).