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

The Finding of Moses

Oil on canvas, 116 x 178 cm
National Gallery, London

This painting, the latest and grandest of Poussin's three versions of the theme, was acquired by the National Gallery jointly with the National Museum of Wales in 1988 and is shown alternately in London and Cardiff.

Poussin illustrated events from the life of Moses at least nineteen times. It has been pointed out that when he could, he avoided painting scenes of saintly visions or martyrdoms, the stock-in-trade of seventeenth-century religious art. He concentrated instead on the central themes of Christianity, relating them both to their historical context in the ancient Near East and to the basic tenets of other religions, following an intellectual fashion of the day. Of the Old Testament subjects which he painted, the majority belong to the category of types, or prefigurations, of Salvation.

From Early Christian times the Old Testament was read by Christians for its analogies with the New. Thus the waters of the Nile to which the infant Moses is consigned by his mother in 'an ark of bulrushes', following Pharaoh's cruel order to drown all the male Israelite babies (Exodus 1:2), were likened to the waters of baptism. But Poussin's interest in Moses may have been prompted also by his identification with pagan deities; as a contemporary writer influenced by these ideas wrote of this picture: 'He is Moses, the Mosche of the Hebrews, the Pan of the Arcadians, the Priapus of the Hellespont, the Anubis of the Egyptians.'

All these ideas reverberate throughout the painting. The baby on whom Pharaoh's daughter has taken pity resembles the Christ Child blessing the Magi or the shepherds in a scene of the Adoration. In the background on the left an Egyptian priest worships the dog-shaped god Anubis (barely visible now that the surface paint has grown thin and transparent). We know we are in Egypt because on the rock above the main scene a river god, symbolising the Nile, embraces a sphinx, palm trees stand on the shore and an obelisk rises up behind a stately temple. (Curiously, the many-windowed buildings with which Poussin, who had never been there, endows Pharaoh's country now resemble modern resort hotels.)

The main interest and beauty of the painting, however, do not reside in its possible symbolism, but in the wonderful grouping of the figures, all women to contrast with an analogous group of men in Christ healing the Blind Man (now in the Louvre), painted for the same patron the year before. Each plays her role in the dramatic tale, the princess generous and commanding, the maids curious and delighted. The humbler figure in a white shift at Moses' head may be his sister who watched from nearby to see what would happen to him, and recommended their mother to Pharaoh's daughter as a wet nurse. It is tempting to see their brilliant draperies as a compliment to Poussin's patron, the Lyon silk merchant Reynon. Bodies and colours, each distinct and separate, combine in ample rhythms across the picture surface, echoed by the rocks beyond. It is at once solemn and joyful, as befits a scene in which a child is rescued from death, and through him an entire people is saved.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 5 minutes):
Gioacchino Rossini: Moses, Moses' Prayer