Nicolas Poussin’s 1651 version of The Finding of Moses is rich in visual typology. Fusing his signature style with scriptural interpretations common in his era, the artist presents Moses as Christ’s forerunner, and his rescue from the Nile as a pivotal moment in salvation history.
Poussin divides his central figures into two groups. On the right, four female attendants pull the infant from the water and present him to Pharaoh’s daughter. The woman kneeling in white is thought to be Moses’s sister Miriam. On the left, the Egyptian princess is shown in opulent yellow dress, gesturing with compassionate authority as she receives Moses into her care and gives her attendants further instruction. While one handmaid stands calmly beside her, four other women rush forward, eager to behold the infant.
Poussin’s arrangement of these figures seems to evoke traditional scenes of the Nativity, conjuring parallels between Moses and Christ. For example, the positioning of the highly animated women on the left seems to echo typical representations of the magi or shepherds: as one reaches forward to clasp the infant’s legs, the others gaze upon him adoringly. In response, Moses raises his hand in a gesture that reflects Christ giving a blessing. Meanwhile, with her modest headdress and compassionate expression, Pharaoh’s daughter so resembles Mary that she has been called the ‘Regal Virgin’ (Wine 2001: 369).
These visual cues indicate Poussin may be drawing on contemporary biblical interpretations, for it was widely held that Moses’s rescue prefigured Christ’s narrow escape from the slaughter of the innocents. More broadly, perhaps the artist wishes to suggest a correlation between Moses, who leads the Israelites from slavery into freedom, and Christ, who frees humanity from slavery to sin.
Of course, this could be seen to reflect supersessionist beliefs that have prevailed throughout Christian history. Yet Poussin ultimately reminds the viewer that Moses’s rescue is situated at a critical crossroad in salvation history. At the threshold between two clusters of women, Moses becomes Christ’s forerunner, the point upon which hope for deliverance turns.
Wine, Humphrey. 2001. The Seventeenth Century French Paintings (London: National Gallery Company)
5Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, and her maidens walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. 6When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”