The Ecstacy of St. Paul
by Nicolas Poussin, French 1594-1665
SN 690. Oil on Canvas 1643

Nicolas Poussin, who was active primarily in Rome, is regarded not only as the greatest French painter of the 17th century but also as the mainspring of the Classical tradition in French painting. He was influenced by Titian's work until about 1633 when he moved to a more austere classicism which recalls Raphael and Giulio Romano. He became preoccupied with the depiction of emotion by the gestures, pose and facial expression of his figures.

On an otherwise brief unhappy visit to Paris (1640-42) he came into contact with the intellectual bourgeoisie who became patrons for the rest of his life. Over the next decade he painted for these patrons the works which are considered the purest examples of the Classical spirit. In this Poussin believed that painting must present noble and serious human situations in an orderly manner with appeal to the mind and not the eye. Trivial sensuous allures such as glowing colors were not acceptable.

Poussin had a practice of preparing his compositions with the aid of a shadow box or a model stage filled with wax figures. By rearranging the figures and lighting he was able to produce drawings notable for their controlled but emotionally effective choreography.

Notable works included The Seven Sacraments, with contrasts of light and dark ; Dance to the Music of Time, in which Music, Poetry, and Dance were brought together in a painting ; Landscape with Diogenes which gives an expression of mood in which the harmony of nature and the virtue of man are explored. Landscapes are presented as if they were architectural constructions, with clearly defined planes within a finite enclosed space.

During the 1650's Poussin's depiction of religious subject matter became more poignant and his capacity to go to the heart of the subject matter reached a new level of intensity. The Ringling Holy Family, for example, is the most grandiose and severe in conception of all of the Holy Families he painted. This maniera magnifica or magnificent style lasted from about 1655 to his death some ten years later.

Paul, a Jew of Tarsus, originally called Saul, is the subject of this painting. He became a foremost leader of the church ( Acts 7:58, 9:1-25, 13:9,13, 22: 25,29).To a number of churches and intimate friends he wrote letters, approximately a dozen of which are preserved in the New Testamant. He is believed to have suffered martyrdom in Rome late in the reign of Nero (about A.D. 67).

In this painting we see an interpretation of the ecstatic vision of St. Paul which he describes in Corinthians ( II Corinthians 12: 2-4). "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether out of the body I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such a one caught up to the third heaven . . . How he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter".

Though Pouissin was never entirely at home with the visions and ecstasies that were the common currency of so many of his Baroque contemporaries, he painted a handful of such works in his maturity, of which the present picture is arguably one of the finest. It was painted for a patron as a pendant to a version of Raphael's Vision of Ezekial.

We see St Paul lifted against a stormy sky by two adult angels and two putti. The angel on the right is wearing a dark blue gown, the one on the left is draped in gold. The saint wears a flaming red mantle over a dark green tunic which provides a fresh contrast with the blue sky that seems to glow with a mystical light. The billowing draperies of the angels creates a sensation of upward lift. St Paul flings his arms out and throws back his head in rapture, giving us the feeling that his frail physical body can tolerate no more of the glorious vision that has been granted him.

The distant landscape at the bottom of the painting takes us up to a dizzying height and gives the figures almost superhuman scale as they fill the small space of the panel. The ground below is shown as only the narrowest band of land.

Historical Context:
Visions of ecstasy were a favorite theme of the Baroque artist, a subject made popular by the new demands of the Counter Reformation ( the renewal and revival of the Church of Rome) which placed great emphasis on the mystical experience.

Painted during the time of the Counter Reformation, this painting fit well with the aims of the Catholic Church which utilized mystery as well as martyrdom in art to impress the faithful and bring them back to the church and away from the heretical Protestant Reformation.