Nicolas Poussin's altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus
was commissioned for the Chapel of St. Erasmus in St. Peter's in 1629
as part of the ongoing decoration of the great basilica. As the artist's
most significant commission to date and planned for one of the most
important public sites in Europe, Poussin was probably obliged to
produce not only a preliminary compositional drawing but also a painted
modello (model) to give his patrons a clear idea of his intentions.
This exercise provides the visual material to study Poussin's artistic
process for this altarpiece. The section below at the left uses an
animation program allowing you to observe the transition from drawing
to model to finished work.
Part of the artistic challenge involved developing a composition on
a monumental scale (3.2 meters in height) that depicted the horrifically
violent theme of the saint's martyrdom. Erasmus of Formiae was a Bishop
in the fourth century CE. An early Christian martyr, he was tortured
during one of the Roman persecutions by having his intestines wound
out on a windlass while still alive. There is no way to know if the
event is historically valid, but this particular scene had been painted
by other artists including the anonymous altarpiece of the same subject
that stood on the altar of the Chapel of Erasmus in St. Peter's before
Poussin's new work replaced it.
This exercise requires the Marcromedia Flash 5 Plug-in.
Poussin,The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, preparatory drawing,
(pen and ink, 20.5 x 12.3 cm.), Florence, Uffizi.
Poussin, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 162829, (oil
on canvas, 100 x 74 cm.), The National Gallery of Canada,
Ottawa. This is the modello for the altarpiece.
Poussin, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 1628-29, (oil on
canvas, 320 x 186 cm.), Pinacoteca, Vatican City. Signed:
Nicolaus Pusin fecit.
The Life of Erasmus
Erasmus (Ital. Elmo; Sp. Ermo). Early Christian martyr, bishop
of Formiae in Campania, he died c. 303. According to legend
his executioners disemboweled him, winding his entrails round
a windlass. As patron saint of Mediterranean sailors his attribute
was a capstan and this, according to some, was the origin of
the story of his martyrdom. He is depicted lying naked on a
block while his bowels are wound on to a windlass (Poussin:
Vatican Gall.). As a devotional figure he is dressed as a bishop
with a capstan for attribute, or occasionally a sailing ship.
Carpenters' nails pushed under his finger-nails allude to further
tortures. (From James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols
in Art, New York, 1974, p. 115.)
Original Location of the altarpiece in St. Peter's Basilica
Nicolas Poussin's altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St.
Erasmus was commissioned for the Chapel of St. Erasmus in St.
Peter's in 1629. The chapel is located in the north transept
of the building. The original painting was moved to the Vatican
museum and a mosaic copy was put in its place.
Itlay, Rome, St. Peter's, groundplan.
Itlay, Rome, St. Peter's, View into the north transept.