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This dramatic scene of divine punishment is described in the Old Testament. The Philistines are stricken with plague in their city of Ashdod because they have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and placed it in their pagan temple. You can see the decorated golden casket of the Ark between the pillars of the temple. People look around in horror at their dead and dying companions. One man leans over the corpses of his wife and child and covers his nose to avoid the stench. Rats scurry towards the bodies. The broken statue of their deity, Dagon, and the tumbled down stone column further convey the Philistines' downfall.
This picture is a copy by the Italian artist Angelo Caroselli of an original work by Nicolas Poussin, in the Louvre, Paris.
This dramatic scene of divine punishment is described in the Old Testament. The Philistines are stricken with plague in their city of Ashdod because they have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and placed it in their pagan temple. You can see the Ark on the far left – it is a golden casket decorated with winged figures, positioned between the pillars of the temple.
The tightly grouped figures look around in horror at their dead and dying companions. One man leans over the grey-green corpses of his wife and child and covers his nose to avoid the stench. Rats scurry towards the bodies. To the left lies the broken statue of the Philistines' deity, Dagon. Pieces of a stone column litter the floor in the foreground to further convey their downfall.
When the National Gallery acquired the picture it was thought to be by the seventeenth-century French master Nicolas Poussin. Apart from a few architectural details it almost exactly matches a painting by him in the Louvre, Paris. However, the Gallery’s picture is now believed to be a copy by the Italian artist Angelo Caroselli. His work as a copyist was highly rated by Poussin himself, and the fact that this painting passed as a work by Poussin for many years is a testament to Caroselli’s skill.
The original work was painted for the Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Valguarnera in 1631 and a few months later he commissioned the copy we see here. It is likely that Caroselli painted it before Poussin finished the original. The outlines of some of the figures are marked in lead white, suggesting that Caroselli traced Poussin’s composition. He may have drawn the outlines on fine material placed over the painting, then coated the back of the material with white lead. The material could then have been placed on his own canvas and the design transferred onto it.
The composition is an early example of Poussin’s use of gesture and expression to convey emotion. The vivid blue and red draperies and the orange sky contrast with the golden-brown buildings and skin tones. The muscular physique of the figures and the intricate folds of their drapery reflect Poussin’s study of classical statues.
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