CHAMPAIGNE, Philippe de
(b. 1602, Bruxelles, d. 1674, Paris)

The Presentation of the Temple

Oil on canvas, 257 x 197 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

At Jerusalem, it had been revealed to a man named Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah. He therefore came to the Temple, led by the Spirit, and as his parents brought in the infant Jesus, Simeon took him in his arms and said: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ... for my eyes have seen thy salvation". There was also a very old woman prophetess, Anna, who served God day and night in fasting and in prayer. She too gave thanks to God (Luke 2. 25-38).

Philippe de Champaigne places the Gospel story on the Temple steps in front of a portico with Corinthian columns. In the centre, Simeon carries the Child. The way he looks up to heaven and his expressive hand movement testify to the old man's emotion and joy. To the left, Mary and Joseph follow the scene closely, whilst to the right, among the onlookers, the prophetess Anna, symbolising the Synagogue, points to the Messiah with her finger. The two monumental groups of figures are balanced on either side of a central axis, leaving little space for the background décor. Philippe de Champaigne is concerned for historical accuracy and respectful of Christian virtues. Nothing is gratuitous for him. The placing of each figure, the gestures and the colour of the garments are governed by a strict symbolism, learned from reading theologians in the spirit of the Council of Trent.

This large canvas, painted in 1648 for the high altar of the Church of Saint-Honoré in Paris, is very characteristic of the art of this French painter. Philippe de Champaigne, who was born in Brussels, effectively took French nationality in 1629. The painting is from his mature period, when he had perfectly assimilated the various influences on him. His Flemish training had provided him with an outstanding and fluid mastery of painting technique, and a taste for realism - as seen in the facial and hand expressions - which saved him falling into academism. Indeed, he draws part of his repertory of gestures and attitudes from the model book of Dutchmen Abraham and Frederik Bloemaert. Antique art and Raphael, whom he particularly admired, were other reference points. The clear, light colours are typical of French painting of the 1640s and 50s.