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The Return of the Ark
Sébastien Bourdon
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This painting illustrates an episode described in the Old Testament (1 Samuel: 6-12), which is rarely depicted in art. The Ark – a wooden chest covered in gold containing the Ten Commandments – is pulled along on a cart drawn by cattle. It is being returned to the Israelites after the Philistines stole it in battle, and the Israelites are rejoicing. The Ark was a sacred object to Jews and Christians as it had been built by Moses according to God’s instructions. God punished the Philistines for their theft and forced them to send the Ark back to its rightful owners.

Across the lake, vivid white buildings represent the Israelites‘ city of Besh-shemesh. Although the landscape with snow-capped mountains is imaginary, it resembles the countryside around Rome, where Bourdon spent most of his life. The classical composition, which draws our attention to the figures’ dramatic gestures, varied architecture and the contrast between light and shade, shows the influence of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the most celebrated painter in seventeenth-century France.

Key facts
Artist Sébastien Bourdon
Artist dates 1616 - 1671
Full title The Return of the Ark
Date made 1659
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 105.3 x 134.6 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by Sir George Beaumont, 1826
Inventory number NG64
Location in Gallery Room 29
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