Great Works: The Translation of St Rita of cascia, Mid-1630s (49 x 38cm), Nicolas Poussin

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Sad to say, we often admire Nicolas Poussin without greatly loving him. His figure painting can seem a little stiff at times – as if he is transcribing figures from a low-relief classical frieze a touch laboursomely. We admire him for his sense of order, and for the fact that he always thought so hard about what he was endeavouring to achieve; that, in short, he was almost always so admirably cerebral. What often goes less remarked upon is the fact that he possessed an extraordinary ability to bring together the natural world of his present – the first half of the 17th century – and mythological and religious subject matter of a timeless interest. Few painters have been able to combine the sheer, visual variety of a sun-dappled tree, and the serene placement of Palladian architecture. It was as if, quite effortlessly, his visual imagination was able to be in his time and quite outside of it.

This small and quite extraordinary painting of the translation of a little known saint called Rita of Cascia seems to divide, with perfect ease, into two halves, and to hold in a near perfect balance the passionately religious and the secular. The lower two-thirds of the painting is a landscape, which also takes in, at quite some distance away, what has often been generally regarded as the city of Spoleto. As our eyes rise from the bottom to the top of the painting, the painting's theme unfurls itself, little by little, travelling huge distances within a matter of centimetres, and dramatically intensifying as our eyes rise and rise. Our viewpoint is high, almost vertiginously so, and on a level with a rocky promontory at the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. Then, as our eyes climb, we find ourselves descending, to an undulating plain, and down from there again, ever falling, to a river. We then begin to mount again, up to a city, with the magnificent pomp of its domes and its towers, and then on to distant ranges of mountains, some near, some far. The landscape changes, roller-coasteringly, at an almost heightened emotional speed.

Most of this scene-setting is without pointed symbolic weight – with the exception, perhaps, of an intriguing circlet of twigs, which we can see above that rocky promontory. Given the subject matter of the upper half of the painting, we idly speculate that this might just be a reference to the suffering of Christ.

Generally speaking, it is a sombre scene, elementally threatening, coming on to evening perhaps. This coming-on-to-benightedness is very typical of a number of major paintings by Poussin. Many of his paintings are dark, or edging towards darkness, and often they are those which are full of the promise of dramatic incident. This shrouded quality adds to the overall feeling of mystery, some sense that we may have been plunged into the midst of a who-done-it of sorts.

This is such a scene. It seems to darken ever the more as we look at it. We see why immediately – this painting, unlike others by this artist, is no riddle. We feel a sense of alarm at the sight of those boiling clouds, which are bearing the saint on their backs. The elements are stirring, as in the Book of Genesis. The earth is in travail. These clouds are scarcely comely. Their hue is heavy-industrial-pollutant – a great, thick curdling of creams and pinks. Yes, they are almost as thick as best Cornish Clotted, and a great drama is being played out on high – by which I mean the upper third of the painting. Saint Rita is being carried, miraculously, through the heavens towards the Augustinian monks who wait for her at the monastery of St Cascia, near Spoleto. Her arms are wide-spread and wholly accepting of her sweet destiny. In fact, her expansive gesture suggests that she is gathering it in, harvesting it. In spite of the fact that this gesture mimics that of Christ pinioned to the Cross, she also looks perfectly serene as she travels, as if to have been caught up in this way was almost inevitable. Look at the colours of her clothing – the blues and the brilliant billowing orange. Poussin had a particular fondness for exquisite oranges, as we see from another picture in this gallery called Rinaldo and Armida. So the atmosphere of the upper half of the painting is a strange mingling of elemental violence and calm acceptance.

Poussin, we feel, is showing off his talents as a painter of the landscapes of the Roman Campagna almost incidentally in this painting. He was not himself known as a paysagiste, and he would paint landscapes only sporadically. It was not until the 1640s that he would execute his greatest landscapes, and this aspect of his talents did not become fully apparent until as recently 2008, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted an exhibition called Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was the greatest French painter of the 17th century and the leading exponent of classicism. He spent much of his life living and painting in Italy. As much philosopher as artist, his working methods were rigorous, and his influence upon those who came after – including Cézanne and David – enormous. "I am forced by my nature towards the orderly," he once remarked.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial