One of the greatest paintings of the Last Supper, by Nicolas Poussin, has been acquired by the National Gallery and went on display today, just in time for Easter.

Close up of Poussin’s Eucharist (c) National Gallery

The painting, Eucharist (from about 1637-40) is by Nicolas Poussin and is the first of the Gallery’s Bicentenary year acquisitions. The 15th painting by the French classicising artist to enter the Gallery’s collection, Eucharist, is part of Poussin’s cycle of the Seven Sacraments.

The National Gallery was able to acquire the painting through an Acceptance in Lieu from the Trustees of the Duke of Rutland’s 2000 Settlement, with the support of a legacy from Mrs Martha Doris and Mr Richard Hillman Bailey.

The Acceptance in Lieu system enables people to offset inheritance tax by donating or making available art or something similar for the public benefit, such as donating a painting to a gallery. It’s usually better than putting the painting up for sale, which could result in its leaving the UK, as was the case with the sale from the same estate of Poussin’s Extreme Unction in 2012.

The painting can be viewed in Room 31 from today (22nd March 2024) alongside a new long loan from the same Sacraments series Marriage (about 1637–40).

The picture is one of a cycle of seven scenes Poussin painted in the second half of the 1630s, showing the Catholic Sacraments for his friend and patron, the Roman antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657): Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination and Extreme Unction. The sacraments are Christian rites through which divine grace is communicated to human beings. Poussin illustrated them with biblical and early Christian imagery.

The series was brought to Britain in 1785.

Poussin’s Eucharist (c) National Gallery

Six paintings remain from the first series of Sacraments, Penance having been destroyed by fire in 1816. Baptism was acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. in 1939; Ordination by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth in 2011; and Extreme Unction by The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in 2013. In January 2023, an export licence was issued for Confirmation, which was sold abroad. Eucharist and Marriage remained in the collection of the Trustees of the Duke of Rutland’s 2000 Settlement.

Poussin represents the sacrament of Eucharist with a depiction of the Last Supper. At the centre of the strikingly symmetrical composition is Christ holding the bread and cup of wine in one hand and raising the other in blessing. He is seated at a Roman triclinium, a padded couch whose cushions and bolsters Poussin has decorated with a delicate pattern. There are six disciples on either side. At far left, a shadowy figure retreats through an open door, creating a sense of movement in an otherwise still scene. Judas is probably the figure second from the left, the only disciple who does not turn towards Christ.

The most striking feature of this painting is its dramatic use of light, which comes from three sources: the two flames of the double-wicked lamp above Christ’s head and the candle on the stool in the centre left foreground. With these multiple light sources, Poussin sets in motion a complex play of shadow projection, with elements casting two or even three shadows.

Eucharist has been executed with Poussin’s characteristic precision. A pinpoint hole can easily be made out in the fanlight window above Christ’s head, used by the artist to plot the picture’s perspective. In the foreground, the grid of floor tiles has been rigorously planned, and may suggest the use of Poussin’s grande machine (a large box, rather like a toy theatre, into which Poussin placed wax figurines to devise and stage his compositions). Near the right-hand stool, we can see where Poussin has scraped away paint with the end of his brush. Although the painting is not minutely detailed, the blocks of light and shadow in the figures, particularly the faces and feet of the disciples on the right, give a vivid sense of how he worked up his composition. Poussin has paid a great deal of attention to the rhythm of the disciples’ hands across the picture, several of which are held up to receive Christ’s blessing.

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says “Poussin’s Eucharist is an impressive and austere masterpiece. It is the first of the National Gallery’s Bicentenary year acquisitions and we are grateful to HM Government, the Acceptance in Lieu panel at the Arts Council, and the generosity of Mrs Martha Doris Bailey’s legacy, for enabling the painting to join the nation’s collection.”


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One comment
  1. Derek Nicholls says:

    Thank you for such a detailed commentary. As this acquisition reminds us, the NG collection is ours – belongs to all of us – so your including this item today, Ian, is a heads-up to all to get to know and enjoy it.

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