Nicolas Poussin

The Sacrament of Penance (1647)

About this artwork

Poussin depicted the biblical episode where Mary Magdalene repents for her sins and asks for forgiveness by washing Christ’s feet. She is believed to have washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her long red hair before kissing them and anointing them with oil. The scene took place at a feast in the house of Simon and Pharisee, and Poussin portrayed the guests seated on Roman couches (triclinia) around a huge banqueting table. The use of the authentic Roman dining room allowed Poussin to construct a symmetrical composition. He even counterbalanced the figures of Christ and Mary on the left, with a scene on the far right showing Simon having his feet washed conventionally by a servant. This picture is the most dramatic and elaborate of Poussin’s Seven Sacraments.

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Poussin aimed to achieve a pure and noble style of painting inspired by the classical ideals of ancient art and the work of Raphael. Born in Normandy, he trained in Paris before arriving in Rome in 1624. Apart from a brief return to Paris (1640-42) he remained in Rome. He did not employ assistants and preferred painting for private patrons, Italian and French, who shared his scholarly and artistic interests. His work exerted a profound influence on French academic painting. The formal structure and rigour of his compositions, however, has continued to inspire modern artists.