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

Pan and Syrinx

Oil on canvas, 106 x 82 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Pan (Lat. Faunus) is the Greek god of woods and fields, flocks and herds. In Renaissance allegory he personifies Lust; he charmed the nymphs with the music of his pipes, and was said to have lain with all the Maenads. His home was Arcadia, which stood not merely for the region of the Pelloponese where he was originally worshipped, but also for the romantic paradise of the pastoral poets and artists like Poussin. This realm is inhabited by nymphs and shepherds, by satyrs, maenads, Silenus, Priapus and the centaurs who, with Pan, formed the retinue of Bacchus. It was from the latter that Pan acquired his goat's legs.

The story of Pan and Syrinx is told by Ovid (Met. 1:689-713). Pan was pursuing a nymph of Arcadia named Syrinx when they reached the river Ladon which blocked her escape. To avoid the god's clutches she prayed to be transformed, and Pan unexpectedly found himself holding an armful of tall reeds. The sound of the wind blowing through them so pleased him that he cut some and made a set of pipes which are named after the nymph.

Poussin chooses the moment in which Pan has almost caught the fleeing nymph: but movement becomes pose, time stands still, and Syrinx escapes through her transformation. Despite the terpsichorean harmony of the two, their contrary desires are convincingly written into their figures: the joyous yearning and onwards urge of Pan, and Syrinx's timid wish to preserve herself. The sensual vitality of the shepherd-god and the chaste beauty of the nymph are also clearly characterised by the artist's choice of colours: Pan, a reddish brown, and Syrinx pale in colour.

Flying above the pair is Cupid as a winged boy holding a torch and a lead-tipped arrow, which he is about to cast at Syrinx. Ovid tells us that Cupid had various arrow-tips: a golden tip awakened love, while that of lead had the opposite effect.

The dramatic events of the pursuit and the transformation take place within a landscape suffused with light; a light which, with its delicate, atmospheric sfumato, would have been more fitting for an idyll than this dramatic scene. The putti at the bottom of the picture cast themselves aside in fright. The tree trunk on the far right has been painted over Pan's hoof. Evidently Poussin added the tree at a later stage, to produce greater articulation in the picture's spatial structure.

The river-god Ladon checks the two central protagonists, allowing the picture's suspense and dynamism to culminate at its centre. His face, reminiscent of that of the Antique sculpture of Laocoon in his death throes, seems to bear the ineluctable suffering of Antique tragedies, with a depth and emotion that goes beyond all human contingency. From the moment of its discovery in 1506 in Rome, the Hellenistic sculpture of the Trojan priest and his sons entwined by serpents awoke the especial interest of artists, for it showed a restrained formulation of agonising death that was valid for all time.