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

The Triumph of Pan

Oil on canvas, 134 x 145 cm
National Gallery, London

The Triumph of Pan was one of several paintings commissioned from Poussin, in 1636 the leading French artist in Rome, by Cardinal Richelieu. They were intended for a room in his château in Poitou which would also house mythological pictures by Mantegna, Perugino and Costa. Poussin must have been advised about the scale not only of the canvases but also of the figures, for although he never saw the Renaissance paintings his personages are much the same size as theirs. He must also have been told that the pictures were to be set above a high dado, divided by gilt caryatids, gold fleur-de-lys against a blue ground, and marine battles, all under a gilt ceiling.

The Cabinet de la Chambre du Roy in Richelieu's château celebrated the cardinal's 'gift' to Louis XIII of mastery of the seas. The room, with its 'Combat of Wealth and Art', as a contemporary panegyric puts it, and furnished in addition to paintings and panelling with porphyry vases and ancient busts, must have presented a formidable challenge to Poussin. Not only would he be competing with some of the foremost Italian Renaissance artists, his pictures also had to contend with the glittering décor - hence the colours here are among the most brilliant he ever lavished on a painting. Sadly, the room was dismantled long ago and the pictures dispersed, so we can judge the full effect only in our mind's eye.

Poussin carefully allowed for the spectator's point of view. Nimble visitors to the Gallery can sit on the floor to look at this picture in order better to appreciate its spatial construction, and thus its full significance. The revellers occupy a raised stage extending back to where rocks and vine-hung trees screen off the backdrop of sky and distant mountains. Propped up vertically against this earthen stage are a timbrel and two masks - an ancient satyr mask and a modern Italian Columbine. Behind them a Punchinello mask joins a still life drawn from the imagery of ancient bacchanals: thyrsoi - staffs wreathed with ivy and surmounted by pine cones - the crooked stick and pipes of Pan, wine in a metal bowl or crater, and a Greek wine jar showing the god Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus.

The composition is indebted to an engraving after Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, but Poussin also demonstrates his first-hand access to antiquarian lore. The mixture of modern and ancient masks, and the stage-like construction, allude to the origins of theatre in bacchic rites. The main scene represents the 'triumph' or worship of the armless bust of a horned deity mounted on a pillar, his face smeared red with the juice of boiled ivy stems. This is the 'term' of Pan, Arcadian god of shepherds and herdsmen, and Priapus, a phallic god of fertility, protector of gardens, whose cult was imported into Greece from the Near East. Confused with each other, both were associated with Dionysus/Bacchus: Dionysus, god of the grape-vine, who died, descended into Hades then rose again was himself identified with seasonal decay and rebirth. All the participants are members of his entourage (as we find them in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne): nymphs and their lewd playmates the satyrs; maenads who rend deer limb from limb or strew flowers from the winnowing basket sacred to Dionysus. A world of pagan imaginings is brought to life in all its cruel and seductive charm, without a hint of anachronistic moralising.