The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1633–34, Oil on canvas, 153.4 x 211.8 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with a contribution from The Art Fund, 1945, NG5597, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Danger and Therapy

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Natalie Carnes

The viewer’s eye is drawn both to the gleaming calf that commands the top half of Nicolas Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633–34) and to the worshippers circling that calf in dancing adoration. The movement, energy, and crowdedness of the bottom half stand in tension with the stillness and relative emptiness of the top half. Below, the arms of the worshippers stretch out to one another and up toward the calf, while above, the calf’s hoof, necklace, and eyeline all point back down, and so the gaze circulates between these two sights: the unmoving, dead idol and the lively ones giving themselves over to it.

It is easy to miss Moses coming down the mountain in dark fury, his tablet raised. This is not the shining Moses who descends Sinai for the second time in Exodus 34 but the Moses described in Exodus 32, descending unnoticed to the dancing and noise (vv.17–19). Placed far in the background, Moses is so much smaller than the revellers and the calf, and so much more obscure. It is easy for the eye to glide over this one who bears divine presence and instead circle with the dancers, moving between their revelry and the idol’s bright presence. As art historian Richard Neer (2006) has argued, this is an image that warns about the dangers of images, about how they can tempt us to devote ourselves to false divinities. In rendering the golden calf so visually appealing, Poussin shows the viewer how easily her eyes are drawn to idols.

But, of course, this is not simply an iconoclastic message. Poussin warns about images, not verbally but visually. This painting may perform a sort of therapy, helping us to see God better in the world; teaching us to look in the shadows for the divine presence descending; exhorting us to wait patiently for the glorious presence and content ourselves, in this time of waiting, with a God who may come in shadows and traces.

 

References

Neer, Richard T. 2006. ‘Poussin and the Ethics of Imitation’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 51/52: 297–344