Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod: Plague and Artistic Healing

By Tingxuan Nan

Abstract

As an important historical variable, epidemics have profoundly influenced the society throughout the history of different civilizations. Artists often reflect on the relationship between man and nature, as well as society in the face of disaster through their artistic creations – Poussin is one of them. The paper analyzes The Plague of Ashdod created by Poussin in 1630, from the perspectives of Christianity, epidemics and historical constructions. It aims to explore the influence of art-making as a public expression in the society under the crisis of epidemics. The social context of Poussin’s painting The Plague of Ashdod is the outbreak of a plague in Italy. In the time of such disaster, religion often becomes an important way for people to obtain psychological consolation and to alleviate their fear. In The Plague of Ashdod, Poussin incorporates Christian elements with the intention of responding to the social crisis as an “artist doctor”. The method is also commonly applied in the medieval “plague art” of Western Europe. Lastly, to better understand the role of art in the historical narrative of the plague, the paper analyzes the “Recognition-Reaction-Reflection” (hereafter ‘RRR’) model put forwards by Charles E. Rosenberg.

Fig1. Nicolas Poussin, ‘The Plague at Ashdod’, 1631. Musée du Louvre, Paris

Part I. Religious Art as Records of the Plague

Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod was created in the 17th century during the Italian plague. The Christian religious elements in the picture are in fact a projection of the social context in which Poussin lived. Interpreting catastrophic epidemics in relation to the religion was a common phenomenon in society at the time.

The Plague of Ashdod depicts a religious story from the Bible of Samir, showing a catastrophic plague experienced by the Ashdodians after they offended God. According to the Bible of Samir, the Orish brought the sacred Ark of the Covenant back to Ashdod as a trophy and placed it as a tribute in the temple of their faith in Dagon. However, the next day, they found the statue of Dagon rolled to the ground in front of the ark. After the people relocated it, the next day Dagon was again found on the floor with his head and arms broken. At the same time, a plague descended on Ashdod. The inhabitants of Ashdod’s bodies were swollen and diseased. They were terrified, believing that the plundering of the Ark of the Covenant had offended God, and that this was the cause of the plague. Hence, they followed the prophet’s instructions and returned the idol to the Israelites. After the Ark of the Covenant left, the plague disappeared (NIV 1 Samuel 5:6,7). This story reflects the beliefs of the time about the connection between religious inquisition and the plague.

Using a classical art style, The Plague of Ashdod depicts a horrific and chaotic social scene, recreating the biblical story of the plague of Ashdod. To the left of the foreground, the man in yellow covers his face with his hands and walks forward with his head bowed, his left hand extended backward, pulling the boy in white. In another group of figures at the side and back, a man with a bare back sits on the ground, his head and neck hanging low and down, his hand stretched forward feebly, as if he has suffered from the disease. The hooded lady on the right leans forward and seems to want to pick up the man but is stopped by the girl in blue behind her. A baby lies on the back of its dying mother.  Between the dynamic balance of gestures, the power between the figures is balanced, giving the picture a harmonious and tension-filled beauty.

The religious elements in The Plague of Ashdod can be seen as a legacy of Renaissance humanist painting. Raphael, the Renaissance master whom Poussin revered, is famous for his depiction of the Pieta (Madonna mourning Jesus) and the Virgin. The similar scene of people mourning for their loved ones is also presented in the The Plague of Ashdod. In the foreground, a man covers his face with his hands. In front of him is a young woman and an infant lying on its backs, their faces pale and lifeless. Another infant on her right is crying for help. These figures, perhaps a family, forms a triangular structure at the center of the picture. With similar motif but inverse emotion, Poussin’s painting echoes with and also make a sharp contrast to the work of Pieta in Renaissance.

In addition to the recreation of the biblical story, The Plague of Ashdod is Poussin’s portrayal of the social environment in which he lived. Although he never named the relationship between his work and social reality, Poussin’s paintings were widely regarded as depicting the society of his time through classical painting. Poussin created The Plague of Ashdod at a time when there was an outbreak of plague in Italy (1623-1631). The plague, caused by rats, flooded Italian cities with plague victims. The artist’s depiction of rats in the streets can be seen in the lower left and lower right corners of The Plague of Ashdod. This element, unrelated to the religious story, suggests that Poussin divorced himself from the religious narrative, not only as a painter of biblical stories, but also as a recorder of the social reality of the time.

In Western Europe at the time, Poussin was not the only painter to use the plague as subjects of paintings. In the Middle Ages, when plague was widespread, there was widespread plague saint.   For instance, the French painter Josse Lieferinxe (active 1493 – 1505) used the plague as a subject for his painting Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken, which depicts St. Sebastian praying for people in the midst of the plague. Also, the German painter Matthias Grunewald (active 1470-1528) created a similar work depicting Jesus suffering for the sins of mankind. In addition, Bruegel Pieter (active 1525-1569), Michael Sweerts (active 1618-1664), Jules-Élie Delaunay (active 1828-1891) and other painters also created plague artworks in the form of religious stories.

To sum up, in the society where Poussin lived, the plague was often recorded and recalled by religious art as a significant and frequent historical event. Among these works, The Plague of Ashdod is one of the most prestigious art pieces.

Fig2. Josse Lieferinxe.1497-1499, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken

Fg3. Matthias Grunewald, 1515, Isenheim Altarpiece

Part II Plague Art and Artistic Healing

Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod recreates the street scenes of the Italian plague. The content of the painting coincides with epidemiological pathology’s study and analysis of the epidemic conditions of the time, reflecting the real social reality of the artist’s time. The images are full of chaos and sadness and can evoke strong feelings of grief in the viewer. According to Sheila Barker, Poussin is acting as an “artist-doctor” to heal the viewer’s soul. Such motives were commonplace in Poussin’s subsequent career.

The content of The Plague of Ashdod is thought to reflect the spread of epidemics in 17th century Europe. Poussin depicts a sense of proximity between people – family members reaching out, touching, panting, and leaning against each other. The man in the center triangle, seemingly trying to save the crying baby, is covering his mouth and nose in fear of getting affected.

In addition, rats are painted in the lower left and lower right corners of the picture. The rat runs from the sewer into the street and runs through the crowd. According to Barker, the painting suggests two ways of spreading the plague: the first is human contact, and the second is the spread of the virus by rats.

The depiction of The Plague of Ashdod is dark and direct. The tragic is made ralistic and vivid, which evokes strong emotions of sadness and despire in the viewer. Barker argues that The Plague of Ashdod is a dangerous painting. In it, Poussin depicts the chaotic scenes of the city, such as the living mourning for the dead, the fallen statues, and the difference between the healthy and the sick, creating a tragic atmosphere for the picture that echoes the spirit of tragedy. 

Poussin was well aware of the power of these images to provoke feelings of horror and despair in his contemporary viewers. Baker points out that looking at this work is like watching a tragedy, which leads to a emotional purification, Catharsis, that enables the viewers to face the pain around them and fight against the disease. The work is a kind of “visual medicine”, so to speak. As an artist doctor, Poussin, in the face of these calamities, used painting to alert people visually and give them comfort. The artist hopes that the picture can be a spiritual “enhancer” to protect the viewer from the disease depicted in the painting.”

The intention of artistic healing is present not only in The Plague of Ashdod, but also in Poussin’s later paintings. In 1639, Poussin again created Et in Arcadia Ego, a painting on the theme of death, depicting four shepherds identifying the Latin words Et in Arcadia Ego (I am also in Arcadia) on a tombstone. The “Ego”(I) is thought to refer to death. The shepherds form a balanced harmony and beauty that contrasts with the content of the inscriptions. Here similar to The Plague of Ashdod, the artist creating artistic expressions as a response to a philosophical inquiry into life and death.

Plague was a catastrophic phenomenon for the society of the time, and Poussin’s work combines biblical stories with realistic elements, using artistic expressions to record and reflect on the catastrophe and its aftermath.

Fg4. Nicolas Poussin, 1637-39, Et in Arcadia Ego,Musée du Louvre, Paris

Part III: Interpreting the Art Production in Plague with the RRR Model

From the initial outbreak, to its deterioration, to the mitigation of the epidemic, during which people panic, resist, and rebuild and pacify after the disaster, the occurrence of a widespread plague usually leads to far-reaching and lasting social effects. How does one locate and understand the impact of art in these historical phases? In the following paragraphs, I would attempt to answer this question using Charles E. Rosenberg’s three stage model of an epidemic-stricken society.

According to Rosenberg, an epidemic as a social phenomenon can be divided into three stages: Recognition, Reaction, and Reflection (“RRR“). The first stage of the model is Recognition, which is the need for the affected society to seek understanding and comfort when the epidemic strikes. The second stage of the model is Response. Rosenberg divides the “response” into two phases. The first phase is the search for the cause of the epidemic and explain to people how the disease broke out, and the second phase is to unite the efforts of many parties and take immediate emergency measures to respond to the disease. The third stage of the model is the Reflection. After the crisis is over, people must reflect on it in time, which concerns not only the symptoms of the disease and the solutions, but also geographic, climatic, and other factors.  

The “RRR” model allows us to analyze the relationship between Poussin’s painting The Plague of Ashdod and the plague that ravaged Italy in the 17th century. I would argue that, although the content of Poussin’s painting – the panicked people, the city in chaos – seems to represent the early phase of Reaction, the creation of this artwork should in fact be categorized as the third stage – Reflection. While creating this work, Poussin was deeply influenced by the Italian plague from 1629 to 1631, one of the worst plagues of the seventeenth century Europe. It first broke out in northern France in 1623. By the late spring of 1630, the plague was spreading rapidly in northern Italy, killing between 30 and 35 percent of the population (around 2 million people). Poussin was studying in Italy by then and experienced the plague firsthand. The Plague of Ashdod is a result of his reflection on this experience.

The story illustrated in the painting is based on the biblical story of the plague that occurred in Ashdod. The historical reality and the fiction of the story are intertwined in the picture. On the one hand, he arouses alarm by depicting desperate people in a chaotic city, the collapsed idols and destroyed buildings in the near distance and realistically depicts (as understood by the medical profession at the time) the causes of the spread of the plague in the city. Meanwhile, the perfectly peaceful cityscape in the back contrasts sharply with the chaos in the front and center of the picture. It can be seen that Poussin is not simply “recording”, but using his paintings to bring the current disaster and despair into a historical narrative that transcends the present.

Conclusion

By depicting the biblical story, Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod depicted and reinterpreted the society in the midst of the plague in which he lives. With his artistic expression, Poussin reflected on and responded to the catastrophe with a tragic narrative. The art, at this point, is not only a medium for depiction, but also a channel for reflection and consolation.

Bibliography

Aidan O’Sullivan, “Magic in Early Medieval Ireland” Ulster Journal of Archaeology 74 (2017): 107-117.

Asensi, Victor and Fierer, Joshua “Of Rats and Men: Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 24, no.1(2018): 186 – 187.

Barker, Sheila “Poussin, Plague, and Early Modern Medicine.” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 4(2004): 659-689.

Charles E. Rosenberg, Explaining epidemics, and Other Studies in the history of Medicine. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992):1-17

Cristinel Munteanu, “Et in Arcadia ego. A Semiotic Exercise regarding the Relation between Text and Image,” EIRP Proceedings 13(2018): 371-377.

Jessica Ortega “Pestilence and prayer saints and the art of the plague in italy from 1370-1600,” HIM 1990-2015, (2012).

Munteanu, Cristinel “Et in Arcadia ego. A Semiotic Exercise regarding the Relation between Text and Image.” EIRP Proceedings 13(2018): 371-377.

Ortega, Jessica “Pestilence and prayer saints and the art of the plague in italy from 1370-1600.” HIM 1990-2015, (2012).

Rosenberg, Charles E. Explaining epidemics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Sheila Barker, “Poussin, Plague, and Early Modern Medicine,” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 4(2004): 659-689.

Sullivan, Aidan O. “Magic in Early Medieval Ireland.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology 74 (2017): 107-117.

Victor Asensi and Joshua Fierer, “Of Rats and Men: Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 24, no.1(2018): 186 – 187.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s