Looking at today’s painting I can see, stretched out on the ground, at the foot of a tree a soldier asleep. His right arm is behind his head cushioning it against the hard ground. His left arm rests across his shield and his thumb is just in contact with his unsheathed sword. His helmet with the curved red feather lies on the ground nearby. A woman kneeling by his side, leans over him, her left arm almost resting on his arm. Look at the expression on her face. It is a look of love and devotion. There is gentleness to her demeanor. She gives the impression that she does not want to disturb his sleep. She just wants to gaze lovingly at him as he rests. It is a very tender scene.
Or is it ??
Look more closely. Look at her right hand which is holding a dagger. Now we begin to doubt the tenderness of this scene. Her arm which holds her dagger is being feverishly dragged back by a small winged child who we believe to be Cupid, and who is the embodiment of love. He is desperately trying to prevent the young woman from killing the soldier. Look at the way Poussin has depicted the concentration in Cupid’s face as he struggles to control the woman and prevent her thrusting her dagger into the body of the sleeping man.
So what is it all about ? Is it a scene of love or vengeance ? Well, actually it is both. Nicolas Poussin based his painting on the epic poem written by Torquato Tasso in 1580, entitled La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem delivered). The subject matter of this poem is the conflict between the Christian and Muslim forces and the siege of Jerusalem and within the main story he tells the story of Rinaldo, a Christian Crusader and Armida, a Saracen sorceress. It is a poem which has inspired many operas from the likes of Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak to name but a few. It has motivated artists like Anthony van Dyke, Francois Boucher, Giovanni Tiepolo and Francesco Hayez to base their paintings on elements of this tale.
My featured artist today is the French Classical painter, Nicolas Poussin, and today’s painting is entitled simply Rinaldo and Armida which he painted in 1625 and hangs in the Dulwich Gallery, Lomdon. Poussin painted a number of pictures illustrating the liaison between Rinaldo and Armida. In the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, there is a painting featuring the two protaganists. In this one , painted slightly later than the Dulwich picture, Armida has dropped her dagger and is about to lift Rinaldo up and carry him off with her to her island. A third picture, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, represents the actual carrying off of Rinaldo by Armida and was painted by Poussin in 1637 for his friend and fellow artist, Jacques Stella. The fourth picture, entitled The Companions of Rinaldo, can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The painting is based on the story which which tells a largely fictionalized version of the First Crusade in which Christian knights battle Muslims in order to take Jerusalem. This scene involving Rinaldo and Armida is about hate turned into love. The subjects here are Rinaldo, a captain of the Christian army and the sorceress Armida who sides with the Muslims. To dissuade the armies Armida woos the men with her charms and turns them against each other, thus weakening the troop. Those who followed her were all turned into animals. On seeing Rinaldo, Armida fell in love with him and kidnapped him. In her Garden of Pleasure and secret Palace she put him under a spell and he grew idle and became infatuated with the sorceress.
The translated verse below from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata encapsulates what is happening in Poussin’s painting.
Now from the ambush the false sorceress flies,
And looms above him vengeance in her eyes.
But when she fixed those eyes on him to see
His calm face as he drew breath, soft and light,
His eyes that seemed to smile so charmingly,
Though closed (if they now opened, what delight!)
She halts, transfixed and next him presently
Sits down to gaze, feeling her rage and spite
Stilled as she hangs above him, marvelling
As once Narcissus hung above her spring
Thus (who would credit it?) the slumbering heat
Hid in his eyes melted the ice that made
Her heart harder than adamant, and lo!
She was turned lover who was once his foe.