Painting a Plague| Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK and in this post examines Nicholas Poussin’s depiction of plague in the ancient world.

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague at Ashdod, 1631. Oil on canvas. Paris, Louvre (Public Domain Reproduction licensed under Wikimedia Commons)

Plagues have left their mark on popular culture. From Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Jack London’s Scarlet Plague (1912) and the modern-day zombie movie, plagues have always been associated with anarchy and confusion.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1655) was born in Normandy, France where he received a basic education. He then ran away to Paris at the age of eighteen to become an artist. Under the tutelage of several French and Flemish artists he honed his craft.

Poussin specialised in painting religious scenes as well as depictions of the classical era. The Plague of Ashdod represents a scene from the Old Testament that is recorded in the first book of Samuel.

For more information on the plague of Ashdod, see my previous post.

The Philistines, having captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites, are struck down with plague. The epidemic only ceases when the Ark is returned to the Israelites.

In the painting all is pandemonium. Bodies lay stretched in the streets while the faces of the upright figures in the foreground betray a look of bewilderment and confusion.

In the background two figures carry a dead body. Another figure sits listlessly on the steps of the stone temple. The crumbling stone structure in the foreground symbolizes the breakdown of the social order.

Yet the means of the Philistines’ salvation is close at hand. Rats can be seen scuttling about. To rid themselves of the plague, the Philistines will need to offer a sacrifice of the rodents. Poussin’s painting was taken as a model by Michael Sweerts for his painting titled Plague in an Ancient City.

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