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Nicolas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf

Key facts
Full title The Adoration of the Golden Calf
Artist Nicolas Poussin
Artist dates 1594 - 1665
Date made 1633-4
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 153.4 × 211.8 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with a contribution from the Art Fund, 1945
Inventory number NG5597
Location Room 31
Collection Main Collection
The Adoration of the Golden Calf
Nicolas Poussin

In this scene from the Book of Exodus, a large gathering of Israelites worship a life-size statue of a golden calf, or what is actually a bull, which represents the Egyptian bull-god Apis. They have decided to worship a different, pagan god while their leader Moses has been away on Mount Sinai collecting the stone tablets on which God has written the Ten Commandments, his laws on how to live properly.

Aaron, dressed in a white cloak, has melted down gold earrings to create the idol. In the top left corner, Moses returns with Joshua, and in his anger at seeing the calf smashes the tablets.

The worshippers dance energetically and we follow their pointed hands across the canvas, which helps to tell the story. One group points towards the altar, leading our eye across the foreground to the dancers and Moses on the left. Poussin’s interest in antique sculpture is conveyed by the muscular bodies, flowing drapery and frieze-like arrangement of the dancers.

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