21 July 2022

How many Sacraments ...

 You may find (for example, in the ancient Parish Church at Little Walsingham) medieval representations of the Seven Sacraments. But ... I think ... Poussin was the first great Renaissance painter to do a set of seven separate paintings of the Sacraments. In fact ... he did two such sets. And they are both in Britain.

Or rather, they were. But the first set, which the Duke of Rutland bought on the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds, is a bit on the depleted side. In 1816 Penance  was lost in a fire. In 1946, Baptism was lost to Washington. Ordination has made its way to that fabulous gallery in Fort Worth. And Unction has migrated to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Leaving just Eucharist, Confirmation, and Marriage  in Belvoir Castle.

Well, not exactly at Belvoir. Security, insurance, and all that, can make it advantageous for great paintings to live in more institutional contexts rather than costing their aristocratic owners lots of scarce cash. So the three surviving Rutland Sacraments have been living in the splendid gallery attached to Dulwich College.

But this may be coming to an end. I presume that there are some expensive leaks in the roof of Belvoir Castle, because Confirmation has been sold for £19,000,000. Perhaps somebody out there knows whether it is the Americans ... or the Chinese ... or the Arabs ... who ... ... Anyway, the Government has given us until January to match that sum and to keep the painting in Britain.

Poussin painted this set of the Sacraments for an interesting individual: Cassiano dal Pozzo: interesting, because he was Secretary to Francesco Cardinal Barberini. Who was a nephew of Pope Urban VIII.

Yes! The classicising pope who had the Breviary Office Hymns revised so that their Latinity would be worthy of Horace. 

Naturally, there was a great desire in such circles to have the detailing in the seven paintings of the Sacraments classically 'authentic'. Accordingly, for example, in the Eucharist the participants are disposed on couches, reclining as the ancients did when feasting (contrast such more 'medieval' representations of the Last Supper as Leonardo's at Mlan).

In Confirmation, the officiant is confirming a very young child. But, it seems to me, this represents the sacramental sociology of the late Middle Ages, when most non-noble children were baptised very soon after birth, but only 'confirmed' when the Bishop went on circuit round his diocese. My suspicion is that a careful study of the detail in Poussin's paintings would reveal a situation analogous to that of the Barberini hymns: a pedantic passion to be accurate in the classical details, combined with a very natural failure always to succeed in achieving this ... because such detailed knowledge is always only ever on the way to perfection.

Later, Poussin did a second set of The Sacraments. I think (?) it still belongs to the Duke of Sutherland, but lives in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

1 comment:

Simon Cotton said...

In Little Walsingham parish church, the Seven Sacraments are indeed vividly displayed on the bowl of the Seven Sacrament font. Made between about 1450 and 1544, some forty of these late-mediaeval fonts survive - one in Kent, one in Somerset, 13 in Suffolk and 25 in Norfolk. Although some have been defaced, enough remains to convey vividly the sacramental life of the century before the Reformation. Read Ann Nichols' book, 'Seeable Signs'.