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Seven sacraments depicted in art at the National Gallery in Washington

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In these difficult times of pandemic, we may miss experiencing the sacraments instituted by Christ. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith.”

We also miss being able to go to museums and see great art in person.

Yet thanks to modern technology, we can use this time to re-imagine the original context and meaning of many artworks that have been separated and put on museum walls.

A great example of this is the Seven Sacraments series painted by Nicolas Poussin around 1640.  The National Gallery of Art in Washington owns one of those pictures, “The Baptism of Christ.” Knowing that it was meant to dramatize the sacrament of baptism unlocks meaning that might otherwise escape us.

As every religious education teacher knows, artists rarely depicted the seven sacraments. The altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden from around 1448 gathers all seven rites (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders and marriage) within a brilliantly lit Gothic church interior.

But although the sacraments were taken for granted in 1448, a century later they were under attack from the Protestant reformers, who allowed only two — baptism and the Eucharist. At the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Church vigorously reaffirmed the seven sacraments.

A hundred years later, more challenges came: Large chunks of Europe had split from Rome, experimental science and archaeology posited knowledge that sometimes seemed at odds with the Bible, and voyages of discovery opened a vast and bewildering new world. As church leaders sponsored excavations to recover the early Christian martyrs, they revised the liturgical calendar to stress proven histories and remove saints whose legends could not be verified.

Meanwhile, artists had new tools at their disposal that were unknown in the 15th century.  They studied anatomy and facial expression. Poussin took a page from the theater and the new medium of opera, and he studied the unpublished notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, to which he had access through his friend Cassiano Dal Pozzo. He modeled small figures in wax and set them on dowels on a stage within a box. He controlled the flow of light by carefully placing holes in the walls of the box.

He would drape the figurines in wet cloth to study the fall and modeling of the drapery, then recreate these studies with living models.  “I have neglected nothing,” the artist said, when asked how he had come to rank so high among Italian artists of the day.

The National Gallery “Baptism”

Enter Cassiano Dal Pozzo, who commissioned the Seven Sacraments from Poussin in 1637. He was the secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, an avid student of ancient Greece and Rome, collector of scientific samples, admirer of Leonardo da Vinci and friend of Galileo, and he was engaged deeply in harmonizing the faith with new knowledge.  Patron and artist picked scenes from the New Testament and the earliest days of Christianity for this unparalleled project. Where possible, Poussin sought archaeological accuracy: He was the first painter to show the disciples reclining at table at the Last Supper, as they would have in ancient times.

In Poussin’s “Baptism of Christ,” the River Jordan winds in front of a serene mountain landscape. To the right, St. John baptizes Jesus. Two kneeling angels attend. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above. The moment is described in Matthew 3: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, heavens were opened (for) him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him. Then a voice said from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The 10 figures on the left side of the picture represent a cross section of the throngs of people who, according to Matthew, flocked to the Jordan to repent and be baptized by John.  With their complex poses and varied expressions, they respond with fear and astonishment as they acknowledge Christ as the Son of God. The ages range from old to young.

Poussin’s Sacraments series, completed around 1642, became famous. It remained in the Dal Pozzo family until 1784, when the Duke of Rutland bought it. The series was intact until 1816 when one painting, “Penance,” was destroyed in a fire.  Today, if you wanted to see the six remaining images, you would have to travel to galleries in England and Fort Worth, Texas.

Hamerman writes from Reston.

Find out more

The National Gallery of Art in Washington is now partially open. For more info, call 202/842-6997.

To view the paintings, go to bit.ly/SevenSacraments.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020