POUSSIN, Nicolas
(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

The Battle of the Israelites and Amelekites

1624-25
Oil on canvas, 98 x 134 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

The subject of the painting is taken from the Old Testament, Amalek is a figure in the Hebrew Bible. The Amalekites were a people mentioned a number of times in the book of Genesis, and considered to be Amalek's descendents. The Biblical relationship between the Hebrew and Amalekite tribes was that the Amalekite tribes without provocation pounced on the Hebrews when they were weak. The Amalekites became associated with ruthlessness and trickery and tyranny. David waged a sacred war of extermination against the Amalekites, who may have subsequently disappeared from history.

Poussin's paintings display a highly idiosyncratic French rationalism. Already in this early work, one of the first painted after his arrival in Italy, he places two radically distinct subjects - the "thick of battle" and Moses praying (which ultimately decides the outcome) - into a tight picture space, distorting proportions but, in exchange, achieving unity and extreme intensity of action.