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

The Martyrdom of St Erasmus

Oil on canvas, 320 x 186 cm
Pinacoteca, Vatican

As soon as the Germanicus was completed, an even more important commission was received, this time for the Basilica of St Peter's. It was for a large altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St Erasmus. The picture was not a success and, with the exception of the Virgin with St James (Louvre, Paris) which was probably painted for a church in Valenciennes, Poussin painted only one more large altarpiece for a prominent position. The Erasmus is nevertheless important in several ways: it shows Poussin's temporary preoccupation with the Caravaggesque idiom and also his weaknesses as a composer of large altarpieces, demonstrating that he was temperamentally unsuited to the painting of a single picture on a grand scale. Almost all the greatest pictures of his maturity form part of a pair or a series: the first set of Sacraments, the Seasons, and the Crossing of the Red Sea paired with the Adoration of the Golden Calf.