The Adoration of the Golden Calf: Poussin’s Painting and Its Many Interpretations
Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf is one of the most famous paintings of the 17th century. Poussin was a French artist who worked in the Baroque style, and The Adoration of the Golden Calf is considered to be one of his greatest works. The painting depicts the biblical story of the Israelites worshipping a golden calf while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.
Poussin’s painting has been interpreted in many ways, and it has been influential on subsequent artists such as Paul Cézanne, Jacques-Louis David, and others. In this essay, I will discuss the meaning of The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin’s style, the 17th century context, and later interpretations of the painting.
2. The meaning of the Golden Calf
The biblical story of the golden calf is found in Exodus 32:1-35. After Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. While Moses was gone, the Israelites became impatient and asked Aaron to make them a god to worship. Aaron complied, and they made a golden calf to worship. When Moses returned and saw what was happening, he was so angry that he destroyed the golden calf and had those who were worshipping it put to death.
The story of the golden calf is often interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of idolatry. However, some scholars have argued that the story can also be interpreted as a critique of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was a common practice in ancient cultures, and it was only abolished in Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. In this interpretation, the story of the golden calf is not only a cautionary tale about idolatry but also about the perils of continuing to practice animal sacrifice after it has been outlawed by God.
3. Poussin’s style
Poussin’s painting is an excellent example of Baroque art. The Baroque style emerged in Europe in the early 17th century and reached its peak in the late 17th century. It is characterized by grandiose gestures, dramatic lighting, and bold compositions. Poussin’s painting is a prime example of these characteristics.
The Adoration of the Golden Calf is a large painting measuring over six feet tall and nine feet wide. Poussin sought to create a sense of dynamism and movement in his painting, and he achieved this by using a variety of techniques such as asymmetrical balance, linear perspective, time and motion, implied motion, organic shapes, repetition and rhythm.
4. The 17th century context
Poussin’s painting was created during a time of great social, political, and religious turmoil in Europe. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was raging throughout much of Europe, and there were also major upheavals taking place within the Catholic Church with the rise of Protestantism. In this context, Poussin’s painting can be seen as a warning about the dangers of religious idolatry and division.
5. Later interpretations
Poussin’s painting has been interpreted in many different ways by subsequent artists and scholars. For example, some have seen it as a critique of the Catholic Church, while others have interpreted it as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil.
Paul Cézanne, a 19th-century French artist, was influenced by Poussin’s painting when he created his own version of The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Cézanne’s painting is significantly different from Poussin’s, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some scholars have argued that Cézanne’s painting is a critique of the Catholic Church, while others have interpreted it as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil.
Jacques-Louis David, another French artist, was also influenced by Poussin’s painting. David’s painting The Death of Socrates (1787) contains several references to The Adoration of the Golden Calf. For example, the figure of Socrates in David’s painting is based on the figure of Moses in Poussin’s painting. In addition, the snakes in David’s painting are a reference to the golden calf in Poussin’s painting.
In conclusion, Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf is a highly influential painting that has been interpreted in many different ways. Poussin’s painting can be seen as a warning about the dangers of religious idolatry and division. It is also a prime example of Baroque art, and it has influenced many subsequent artists such as Paul Cézanne and Jacques-Louis David.