Madonna of the Steps by Nicolas Poussin

Madonna on the Steps by Poussin (National Gallery of Art,Washington) 1648

“..Poussin is without question one of the greatest of all French painters whose influence on the development of European Art from the 17th Century onwards cannot be overstated. Like Titian before him and his contemporaries Caravaggio and Velazquez, he developed a personal, innovative and highly rigorous style of outstanding originality.  His work has been deeply influential on generations of artists up to the present day…”

Richard Knight, International Co-Head of Old Masters and 19th Century Art at Christie’s

My Daily Art Display today once again features a work, in fact two works, by the great French classical painter, Nicolas Poussin.  The two paintings in question are both entitled Holy Family on the Steps or sometimes referred to Madonna of the Steps and both were completed in 1648.  The painting is considered a masterpiece of 17th-century art and the pinnacle of the artists refined classical style.  One is housed in the Washington Gallery of Art and the other in the Cleveland Museum of Art.  They are similar paintings but the Washington version looks somewhat lighter in colour.  The big issue was which gallery had the original and which gallery had the copy.  The painting which is in the Cleveland collection and was purchased in 1981.   X-radiographs, published in 1982, proved that it was the original of the two versions, the other in the National Gallery of Art, Washington must then be the copy.   Up until then, the Washington picture was thought by some art historians to be the original.  The Washington Gallery was far from pleased with the adjudication and in 1994 Earl Powell  III, Director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, was embroiled in controversy when he delayed the public acknowledgement that the Museum’s  Madonna on the Steps” by Poussin was no longer thought by scholars to be by the master.  It should be said that Anthony Blunt the British historian, art expert and an authority on the works of Poussin believed that the Washington painting was the original.

However notwithstanding who is right and who is wrong the painting dating from Poussin’s mature period is a beautiful work of art.  The arrangement of the figures harks back to works by the High Renaissance artists such as Raphael Sanzio and Andrea del Sarto.  The painting is a merging of the Classical, with its architecture and the Christian with its religious theme.  The figures are placed in a triangular format with the heads of Mary and the Christ Child at its apex. Before us,  we see, seated on the steps, Mary, holding the Christ Child, Saint Elizabeth holding her son John the Baptist and seated behind them, Joseph.  Poussin has included some symbolic features to the painting.  To the left of the seated figures we see an urn overflowing with water which is symbolic of the stream of life and the passing of time and our inevitable death.   Behind the urn we have an orange tree which is regarded as a symbol of purity, chastity and generosity and is often depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary.    On top of the walled side of the staircase we have a myrtle bush which has been, since early times, used as the symbol of love.  In Roman mythology the myrtle was considered sacred to Venus, the goddess of love.

At the front of the painting, on a lower step we see the gifts Mary has received from the three Magi at the time of the birth of the Christ child.  Usually when the Christ Child holds an apple it is symbolizes the fruit of salvation.  There is also a connection with Christ and Adam going back to the passage from the Song of Solomon (2:3):

 “…As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste…”

The passage has been interpreted as an allusion to Christ.  As Christ is the new Adam, so, in tradition the Virgin Mary is the new Eve and for this reason an apple being placed in the hands of Mary, symbolises salvation.

Joseph sits on the steps behind Mary.  He is almost completely lost in the shadows.  By Joseph’s foot we see a measuring stick which in some ways indicates that Joseph was not just a humble carpenter but more of an artisan.  The steps which they are all resting on can be interpreted as the stairway to heaven and the light of God is shining brightly above the summit of the steps.  There are actually a number of light sources in this painting which cast various shadows.