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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003