Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was a French painter and draftsman who founded the French Classical tradition. He spent virtually all of his working life in Rome. His earliest works are characterized by a sensuality and coloristic richness, but by 1633 Poussin had repudiated this overtly seductive style in favor of a more rational and disciplined manner that owed much to the Classicism of Raphael and antiquity. Toward the end of his life, Poussin’s art underwent a further transformation.
This painting of the Assumption is from that late period, and it is one of the most popular of his paintings, copied many time for use in various French churches.
Little is known of Poussin’s religious beliefs, though it is clear that he did not endorse the ecstatic Baroque favored by the Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation in Rome.
From his voluminous correspondence it is evident that the dominant influences on his thought were instead the teachings of the ancient Stoic philosophers and the neo-Stoic followers of his own day, who maintained that only virtue and inner strength afforded any protection against the unpredictability of life.
Poussin gave expression to this conviction in his painting of the Assumption. He seems to be celebrating the fruit of Mary’s unstained virtue and her inner strength as she is assumed into heaven with the angels assisting her on her journey. Her inner strength was tested when she gave her fiat in response to the angel’s message (Lk 1:38); when her son was lost but then found in the Temple and she heard him say, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49); and when she had to witness his passion and death but remained steadfast with him until the end.
When Pope Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, he stated:
“It is to be hoped that from meditation on the glorious example of Mary (we) may come to realize more and more the value of a human life entirely dedicated to fulfilling the will of the heavenly Father and to caring for the welfare of others. We also hope that while materialistic theories and the moral corruption arising from them are threatening to extinguish the light of virtue … the exalted destiny of both our soul and body may in this striking manner be brought clearly to the notice of all.”
Words as true now as they were then.
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.