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Dulwich Picture Gallery to Show Poussin Sacraments

LONDON.- Dulwich Picture Gallery announced another major coup with the opportunity to show the five remaining paintings from Nicholas Poussin’s (1594 - 1665) first series of the Seven Sacraments, painted between 1637 and 1642. This special installation has been organised to coincide with the Gallery’s summer exhibition Twombly & Poussin: Arcadian Painters and presents an ideal opportunity to celebrate Dulwich Picture Gallery’s spectacular collection of Poussin’s paintings, long considered to be one of the best in the country. While Dulwich’s wonderful selection of mythological pictures by Poussin will feature in the summer exhibition, this special display of Poussin’s Sacraments provides us with an occasion to consider two very special religious paintings by Poussin from Dulwich’s permanent collection: The Translation of Saint Rita of Cascia (the subject of recent attention in The Independent as ‘Great Work’ of 11 March 2011) and The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt. These will be hung alongside Poussin’s masterpieces of religious painting – the first set of Sacraments for Cassiano del Pozzo.

In the mid-to-late 1630s, Poussin’s Roman friend and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo, commissioned him to create a suite of seven medium-sized canvases depicting each of the Seven Sacraments of the Roman Church. They consisted of the rites of Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination and Marriage. As a set, Poussin’s Sacraments represent a high point in Western European art. They make reference to classical tradition and great masters of the past, such as Raphael, and anticipate the formal experiments of the future. Poussin influenced artists as varied as Ingres, Cézanne and Picasso, and in their energetic composition these hugely original paintings prefigure the serial works of 20th-century artists such Mondrian and Rothko.

The depiction of the Seven Sacraments in any artistic medium was quite unusual in European art and Poussin’s Seven Sacraments was, as Anthony Blunt noted, ‘a project apparently without parallel at the time’.

Poussin and dal Pozzo picked the scenes of early Christian life that would best exemplify the rituals of the Sacraments, choosing to illustrate them with scenes from the New Testament, or from the earliest days of Christianity, to demonstrate their antiquity. This was important because, except for Baptism and the Eucharist, Protestant theologians were at that time disputing the sacramental nature of the rituals.

Poussin’s series so impressed his Paris patron, Paul Fréart de Chantelou, that in 1644 he asked for copies. The artist made instead a second series (now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland). The first series was bought by the 4th Duke of Rutland in 1786, when Sir Joshua Reynolds arranged for the paintings to be put in their current frames. They were hung in Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. On 26 October 1816 Penance was destroyed by a fire in Belvoir Castle and in 1939 Baptism was sold and is now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The other five which will be on display have been generously lent by the Duke of Rutland’s Trustees, Belvoir Castle, Grantham.

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