Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion

I would like, if possible, to convert these seven sacraments into seven different
situations, by conjuring up as vividly as I can the most strange tricks that Fortune
ever played on man, especially on those who have mocked her efforts. There
would be nothing petty or haphazard about these examples. They would remind
people of the moral strength and the wisdom they must develop in order to stay
firm and resolute in the face of that blind madwoman. Only the very wise and
the very foolish are unaffected by her tempests, the former being above them
while the latter remain oblivious. All those in between are doomed to suffer
their rigours.
Poussin to Chantelou, 22 June, 1648
Poussin had heard a month earlier that Chantelou had just received the painting
of Marriage, the last of his seven sacraments. So the dozen years he had devoted on and off to
painting the two series of sacraments was over, and with it the optimistic light of sacred
community that had illuminated many of those works, if only flickeringly. His vision darkens
in 1648, the year which appears to have been the most productive of his life, both in terms of
the quantity and the sustained quality. There are signs in the next few years of deep fractures in
Poussin’s strong sense of order. The cause is partly that ‘blind madwoman’, but there are also
growing doubts about relations between men and women, and that when they lose balance so
does the world.
Chantelou did not respond to Poussin’s offer of seven trials in misfortune.
Nevertheless, Poussin would himself produce this series of works, quite unsystematically and
for different patrons. It includes both Phocion paintings, the Snake Landscape, Landscape—a
Storm, Pyramus and Thisbe and Orpheus and Eurydice.1 The informal series culminates with
Poussin’s late work, The Misfortunes of Apollo. The paintings are all landscapes.
The story of Phocion was drawn from Plutarch’s Lives, the single source. As far
as we know there are no artistic precedents to Poussin’s interest, nor any later reworkings—
although Blunt notes a painting in the Nantes museum said to depict Phocion refusing the gifts
of Alexander. 2 This is the story Poussin made his own. Phocion (402-318 BC) was an
Athenian statesman and general whose virtues were summed up by Plutarch as ‘a blend of
kindness and severity, of caution and daring, of solicitude for the safety of others and disregard
for his own, of abhorring dishonour and indefatigable in the pursuit of justice.’ As a boy he had
been a pupil of Plato, later a disciple of Xenocrates, and in his career he sought to revive the
kind of civic service exemplified in the past by Solon, Aristides and Pericles. Although he was
openly contemptuous of the fickleness and folly of his fellow citizens, and never curried their
favour, they elected him military commander forty-five times. When in need they recognized
his superior generalship. As an orator he was renowned for his terse advice and harsh
Phocion lived simply, refusing munificent gifts from men as eminent as
Alexander the Great. His wife kept only one maid, and is reported to have responded to an
Ionian woman who was showing off her jewelry: ‘My ornament is Phocion.’ In the latter part
of his life Athens was under near constant threat from Macedonia. After one incident in which
Phocion may have mistaken the trustworthiness of one of the enemy, the Athenians arrested
him on trumped up charges of treason. A mob of citizens, slaves and foreigners condemned
him and a number of his companions to death. He attempted to save the others by accepting
guilt himself, but was howled down. No one defended him in the public assembly, but a move
to have him tortured was defeated. As he was led to prison a man ran alongside shouting abuse
and spitting at him. Phocion asked: ‘Will nobody make this fellow behave himself?’ The
prison then ran out of hemlock, at which Phocion sent a friend out to buy some more, quipping:
‘A man cannot even die in Athens without paying for it.’
The day of his death, in early May, 318 BC, was reserved for a festival to Zeus.
In spite of the sacrilege the execution went ahead. Furthermore, it was decreed that Phocion’s
body be taken beyond the frontier of Attica, and no Athenian provide fire for the funeral pyre.
No one dared touch the corpse, but a man was paid to carry it beyond Eleusis, bring fire from
Megara and burn it. Phocion’s wife was present, with her maid, and raised a mound on the
spot. At night she took Phocion’s bones secretly back to her house in Athens, and buried them
by the hearth. Soon after, the Athenians came to their senses, erected a statue and gave his
bones a public burial. Phocion’s accusers were put to death.
Phocion is Stoicism incarnate. His life was dedicated to virtue, and virtue in
itself, not as a means to another end—either the religious one of salvation or the worldly one of
happiness. More concretely, his implicit oath was to civic duty, to serving Athens and his
fellow citizens. In allegiance to justice and truth his ancillary virtues were personal courage—
both in battle and in expressing unpopular judgments in the public assembly—temperance, and
a detachment from the folly and evil of others, and the harsh tricks of fortune. Blunt writes that
it is no surprise that Poussin should have identified with a man so like himself, with a stern and
austere manner covering a gentle disposition, an inclination to the simple life, shunning the
riches of the world, and a single-minded dedication to the truth. The precision and economy of
his speeches was analogous to the mode of Poussin’s art. Poussin too, in his everyday life,
chose to live simply, keeping only one servant.3
Poussin painted Phocion twice, both works for Serisier, a Lyon merchant. They
have the same dimensions, 115x175cm. Félibien dated them to 1648. It has been assumed on
stylistic grounds that the Landscape with the Body of Phocion came first. While accepting the
case I shall suggest that an even stronger one can be made in terms of narrative content. Further
to the stylistic argument, the second, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, is very similar in
tone and mood to the Snake Landscape and Pyramus and Thisbe, the latter with the definite
date of 1651—the second Phocion painting may be a couple of years later than generally
The first of the pair, The Body of Phocion, today hanging in Cardiff, puts a
theory of culture. The collective conscience that binds a people is founded by great men and
their tragedy. Here the long corpse—he must have been very tall—is carried out of the city, the
exposed knee already green, the front carrier almost collapsing with a weight that is not merely
A root juts across the track, like a witch’s scrawny hand protruding from
underground, indicating that he stop. Most of the canvas is taken up by town and landscape,
painted with a meticulous care for detail. Viewed from ten or fifteen feet back the work is a
beautiful and harmonious city blending with nature. A procession to celebrate the festival of
Zeus is a part of the powerful order.
How can this be? An outrage has just been committed by the citizens of Athens,
the betrayal of the man who had done more than any other to further their well-being. It is hard
to imagine an act of greater civic infamy, and it is sacrilegious also. Yet life goes on as if
nothing has happened. Athens flourishes. There are no dark clouds menacing from the
horizon. On what is such an order, if that is what it is, founded?
At the centre, in every sense, is a stone monument, a tomb on a knoll, in style
imitating a Roman burial pedestal. It is Phocion’s tomb, although not yet explicitly so.4 It may
also serve as the base to the statue that will be erected to him. The stone draws its strength from
beneath. There are two sources. The body is directly under it, in the horizontal. It has an
extraordinary, immobile weight. Secondly, up and to the left, there is a wagon, pulled by two
oxen, which like the two pall-bearers will hardly move—they need beating. On the cart sit two
women, a double incarnation of the widow, the front figure hunched in grief, stricken with
suffering, the rear figure her other, active self, the one who will build the mound and bring the
bones back—she gazes disdainfully at a man in red galloping towards her. It is her useless son,
as described by Plutarch, here looking like he has just interrupted his sport, his careless
pastimes, thinking he better do something, but not knowing what. He is all senseless rush. A
maid in red walking at the back of the cart turns scornfully towards him. The overbearing
heaviness in corpse and wagon transform into a gravity centred on the tomb, so that we can
imagine Phocion regaining his vertical authority there, commanding Athens, giving it stability.
There are implied further links, with the right tree arching over the tomb, the
round tower in the background, the hill with the obelisk, and the distant mountains. But they
are blurred. There are Christian allusions, to the invisible cross, the burden of carrying it, to the
three sleeping disciples, and to the shepherd, but they too are fuzzy. It is as if the painter has
compensated for the haziness of his vision, that he is premature in putting it on canvas, by
making trivial details in the work fastidiously clear.
What remains, apart from a fine landscape, is the presence of the Stoic hero,
whose tragedy founds the cultural order which makes everyday life possible, Athenians going
about their ordinary lives, at work, in leisure, at prayer, their folly and evil unpunished, like the
sheep grazing in the foreground. There are also oxen and pall-bearers. There is the widow too,
herself an embodiment of Stoic greatness, of fortitude, courage and loyalty. She knows what
she has to do, and does it. She helps to found the sacred site which will be Athens’ ornament,
not a gold tinsel Zeus.
Finally, there is the loneliness. He dies for them, but no one cares, not even his
own son. All is oblivion, his beneficiaries either indifferent, not even providing enough poison,
or spitting on him in hatred. What Stoic fortitude would be needed, what wisdom, not to be
affected by this tempest? But Phocion does have his wife, and she him. Their virtue brings
their suffering, and their isolation, perhaps less because of the resentment of more fallible others
than that they have, in Poussin’s written words of the same year, mocked that blind madwoman,
Fortune, mocked her by their virtue.
The Ashes of Phocion hangs today in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The
widow has moved centre-stage, and Phocion’s own dominating presence—with the exception
of a small pile of ashes—has become invisible. Scholars have assumed that the town in the
middle-ground is Megara, but this cannot be. Poussin is not so literal-minded. It is Athens,
with a temple to Athena at its heart, and indeed situated in the exact middle of the painting.5 Of
continuing interest is the condition of a society that betrays and murders its own saving hero.
The painting is built up from three distinct zones. The foreground is separated
from the city by a low wall. It includes Phocion’s widow and her maid, on a grass island in the
middle of a triangular dirt road, and to the right a man cringing in a dark grove of trees. The
second zone takes up the central ellipse of the painting. It is Athens, layed out in circular
patterns behind its low wall, with a curved road flanking a common and a narrow pond or lake
behind, the buildings constructed around a craggy acropolis. The third zone is the heavens.
Massive trees rise from the left and right foreground to gesture to the heavens, and the acropolis
reaches up from the centre of the city, towering over it, also to link with the sky.
Athens has no contact with either foreground or heavens. Its inhabitants go
about their daily lives. Some work; some are at leisure. There are three archers, another man
plays the flute, a fifth reads from a papyrus scroll, others swim, including one who is removing
his white chemise. Here is the stock-in-trade of the everyday. The people are unthreatened,
easy in their lives. Their city secures them, itself a monument to the pride of human creation, to
a this-worldly order. At its apex is a temple, in architectural form borrowing closely from
Palladio’s reconstruction of an ancient temple at Trevi.6 It is in part a reminder by Poussin that
the temple of his art is contemporary, reworking classical forms to address eternal questions.
He would have liked the parallel with the extraordinary discipline needed to rework the
classical orders of architecture.
The Temple rules Athens. Its narrow front and long Corinthian columns, its
high triangular pediment topped by three tall statues, give to it a forcefully vertical presence. It
is bathed in full sunshine, set on a ridge high above the people down on the flat. The statue at
the apex is Athena herself, standing victorious, holding a spear, the patron goddess of the city,
representative of both warfare and wisdom, echoed in the daily life below in the form of the
sport of archery and the pursuit of the various arts. The choice of Corinthian columns was
probably in itself deliberate, for according to the one surviving ancient Roman theory of
architecture, that of Vitruvius, this order imitates the slight form of a girl, which Renaissance
and later theorists took up as ‘virgin female’—suitable for Athena, and also for the Virgin
Poussin’s view of the Platonic purity of classical architecture, blending the
pleasure of the aesthetic sense with universal proportions is intimated in a 1642 letter to
Chantelou, who had just visited Nîmes:
The beautiful girls that you will have seen in Nîmes did not, I am sure, please
you any less than the beautiful columns of the Maison Carrée, since the latter are
only old copies of the former.
Social order here depends on the temple, an ethical order which is tightly
circumscribed in its dimensions, like the classical architecture of this city. It is a moral not a
religious order, except for two intimations from within. The ground plan of the Temple, given
its pair of side porticos, is in the form of a cross, like Poussin’s tomb of John on Patmos. On
the far bank of the lake, directly under the right portico, in the shadows, is the stone base on
which the statue of Phocion will be erected. Here its role is very much secondary to the one it
played in The Body of Phocion.
This Athens has banished the corpse of its greatest citizen, refused it funeral or
burial, and further threatened anyone honouring that corpse. The widow and her servant are
risking exile. In fact the loyal wife has herself stepped outside her community, to work beyond
its walls, like Antigone, to obey an ethic superior to that of the corrupt State.
She kneels in her own domain on the grassy island, at prayer in her own church.
She wears white and vivid Madonna blue. She bends down over the ashes of her husband’s
body. Her left hand scoops them into a pile while her right, its palm down, cradles them, a
tender reverent gesture. Strewn before her are several unburnt faggots, lying so as to conjure up
the limbs or bones of the huge form of Phocion. Indeed the triangular island tapering to the left
is itself shaped like a burial mound. Plutarch mentions the widow building it.
The maidservant stands behind her, anxiously turning, fearful that they might be
seen. Her left arm is tensely extended downwards, the hand bent back with open fingers
splayed wide. It is an incoherent gesture, to pretend that she is watching over her mistress, on
guard, protecting her, yet it is the maid who is agitated. The widow is unconcerned about
anything apart from what she does. The maid is the unwilling exile, without faith and therefore
still under the authority of the law of Athens. Without contact to higher law, she is unnerved by
the human one, which adjudges her a criminal. For her, to be in the dark outside the boundary
walls is a curse. She represents common humanity.
What she sees in her agitation is the young man lurking in the undergrowth to
the right. He is a puzzling figure, reclining on the ground, with his body twisted like a wrung
rope, as if writhing helplessly, unable to stand. He clings to the thick trunk of a tree. It is a
nightmare dark in which he finds himself, and with the imagery wildly interchanging. He
himself looks like a large thick root, ripped out of its soil.
He is the ordinary exile, cast out from his securing community, lost without the
constraint of petty laws and daily rituals. It is a dark and demonic underworld outside the walls
of Athens, and it has clutched hold of his soul, paralysing him. We see him caged in tormented
inwardness. To spy on the illicit gathering of the ashes is far from his mind—in fact his gaze is
down and forwards. Furthermore, while the maid’s anxious stare at him is on the surface in fear
of being caught, its deeper message is that she has seen her spiritual brother. These two belong
together, outcasts from the town and its moral order. They contrast with the widow, who is
totally independent from the human domain of the ethical. Her mission is religious. The man is
reminiscent of the galloping son in the first Phocion painting, an identity of opposites, one
immobile, one in a mad flurry—and the maid looks at both.
As the widow is in white and blue, so are the heavens. The links are multiple.
At least half of the surface area of the painting is taken up by trees, their undergrowth and
shadows. If the heavily shaded foreground outside the wall is included, barely one third of the
painting remains. The massive blocking of the trees to left and right transforms the horizontal
rectangle of the frame into a scene with vertical form. A further effect is to make the selfcontained middle-ground which is Athens recede, highlighting widow and heavens—an effect
reinforced by the diagonal entry into the city along a straight road from front right to middle
left. The trees also serve to narrow the eye in as it moves upwards from the foreground,
squeezing it through the entrance, leaving it free then to sweep around the central ellipse where
the people move, before concentrating down again at the focal temple, the rigorous classical
geometry which stabilizes the town. From the Temple the eye is drawn up to the cylindrical
crag, the cathedral in rock which towers above, and from there to the heavens.
As the hands of the widow cradle the ashes, the upper foliage of the trees cradle
the crag. It is a projection of Phocion himself in his great phallic masculinity. The citadel is
partly in ruins, for he is dead, but its vast, granite power is undiminished. As the remains of the
body rest in the demonic shadows beyond the city walls, incinerated, so too the source of his
power was in volcanic nature. There is a complicated play here on the role of fire. The body,
suggested by the unburnt faggots, and itself in the sketchy form of a cross, is flat and lifeless on
the ground, but it is the ashes that contain the spirit, and they are nurtured by his wife, and will
splutter back to life, then flare upwards—her gesture is as if to coax a spark to catch. Her
devotion, her mission to give fitting burial, her reverent caress of the spirit, makes possible its
flight into the citadel. We now see that the Temple of Athena depends for its stateliness on the
crag behind, without which it would crumble.
Athens is oblivious to the armature to which it is pinned. The people dare not
look up, although it is ignorance that inhibits them, not the wise injunction to mortals not to
look on the face of the divinity lest they be incinerated, as was Semele when she insisted on
seeing her lover, Zeus, in his true shape.
Here is not the divinity, but the sublimated
masculinity of the one they betrayed, kindled into sacred force by his wife.
The Palladian Temple is classical in form, and in function, being dedicated to
Athena. Yet its ground plan is a cross. Here is the metaphor for the painting as a whole, as
temple, a Greek story with some Christian threads. The widow is a Mary figure, dressed in
blue. What she does draws upon the Lamentation, over the body of the dead Christ, with the
roles of mother and wife conflated. The Pietà allusion continues in the ashes which she cradles
being in the position of the head, in relation to the hinted at body. But the inward lead-weight
of grief here gives way to a ferocious intensity, which we read in her face, close down over the
ashes, the choked-back pain transmuted into sacred mission. Bent down, her hands forward,
she prays to the spirit of the ashes. The meditation is to find strength for the vocation to which
she is now called, with the praying a part of the doing. Her call is to charity, here in its tragic
form of caring for the dead, ensuring ritual propriety and fitting burial, that the eternal order of
things—violated by such betrayal and murder—be restored. It is put in the parallel story of
Antigone that the nether gods, they that have authority over the dead, must be appeased: it is a
terrible transgression for humans to take revenge on a corpse. The dead must be respected
whatever they have done on earth, for they have moved beyond the ethical, a point that Poussin
makes by giving the widow a freedom to carry out her rites she would not have enjoyed within
the city walls.
Just as the painting is mapped out spatially into three zones, it separates
metaphysically into three orders, an ascending hierarchy. At the base there is the demonic
order, the jungle, rampant Nature, born out of night. It is an eruption of prodigal creation and
wasteful destruction. Fire is emblematic. It threatens the civilized, hence the prohibition in the
story on any citizen using it to cremate the body, its force to be kept outside. The demonic is
also the domain of eros, the fire between male and female, in the sense of Plato: ‘a very
powerful spirit....plying between heaven and earth....making possible human intercourse with
the gods.’ (Symposium, 202-3) The plying here is from citadel down to ashes, kindled by the
hands of the loyal wife, then back through the citadel to the heavens.
In the ashes, in the dust to dust, spread in the dark, cold earthiness of the
foreground, is the suggestion that we humans die back into the first order, leaving the
communal town. So just as the source of male vitality rises out of the demonic, the dominant
rock citadel, when that life departs the remains are claimed by the underworld beyond the walls.
The same is true for the female. It can only flourish in its full form outside the town. Its
grandest projection in the painting is the trees, which are magnificently luxuriant in their
expanses of fertile green. The exile clings to the trunk as if to the mother. The widow herself,
self-chosen outcast from Athenian law, is free to obey the higher laws decreed by her own
calling. Whereas the State had punished Antigone by sealing her up in a cave, Athens banishes
the wife of Phocion, thus freeing her from its constraints. She now depends on the miracle of
demonic fire.
Then there is the colossal size of Phocion and his wife, like the two trees, which
cannot be accommodated within the city, condemning them to a loneliness among humans.
Forces of nature, they are out of all proportion, and here begins their closeness together. They
keep each other warm.
The second order is ethical. Its domain is city—polis—community. The second
manifestation of Phocion himself is as Athenian, as citizen. This was his city, to which he
dedicated his life. It is ruled over by Athena, warrior goddess for just causes, unlike Ares who
was the war god of destruction. Phocion was her true representative on earth, conducting just
wars and a just politics, making possible a just human order, predicating in turn the social
stability within which other citizens may indulge in philosophy, music, conversation and
various sports—all of which Athena also patrons. Standing up close to the painting one may
join the men and women of Athens. It is an idyllic setting, solid and fine buildings set in
harmonious nature, a lake, a grassy common, the colours warm with the glow of late
afternoon—perhaps it is early autumn, for some of the leaves may be turning brown. Here is a
world without shadows, polar opposite to the town of Ashdod. The people live well, in
prosperity, peaceful and fulfilled, their society a plenitude of human achievement. The light of
Reason shines on Athens.
While this is all true, the calm here depends on the Temple, and the Temple is
Phocion, the sublimation of his demonic force, its elegant vertical Corinthian columns
exemplifying his character, the transmutation of his fire into controlled action. His virtue
counts; the vice and folly of the citizens does not. Poussin ditches normal assumptions, placing
the people of Athens within an ethical order although they are not virtuous themselves. They
are rather like sheep, huddling together for warmth, given to impulsive stupidities, and even
believing they are enough in themselves, they do not need a Phocion, and more, that his
rectitude is an affront to them. They decide among themselves that their fine Temple is a
tribute to their own sagacity, courage and independence. It is the visible Church. Poussin
emphasises the cultural linkings by placing the maid in a vertical line extending directly
down from Athena through the middle axis of the temple, weak to weak, the temple at least
giving her the strength to stand, unlike her prostrate male counterpart.
The invisible and true Church is represented here by the empty stone pedestal in
the shadows below. To its left, in symmetry with it—under the left portico as it is under the
right—is an odd building with a steeply inclined roof. Significantly, it is on the path from
widow to acropolis. The line of the roof when extended rises high above the pedestal,
indicating the height of the statue that will be erected there. It is a gargantuan six or so times
man-size, utterly out of proportion with the city, as is his citadel, an impossible monument at its
The ratio fits the facts, Phocion’s size as citizen, statesman and soldier.
It is
understandable that the meagre and prosaic humanity, imputed here by Poussin, cannot tolerate
someone like him. Even his invisible presence must be repressed, for peace of mind. All of
this is represented in a triangle of vectors, from widow up to citadel, down and across to
invisible statue, then back to widow, the force of which encloses and overwhelms the thin
vertical line joining maid with Athena.8
Athena is goddess of wisdom, and within her city, for the one just man, reason is
a divine gift. Poussin had written to Chantelou in 1644: ‘All your actions being guided by
reason you can do nothing which will not lead to a really virtuous end.’ This is essential
Stoicism: in the virtuous and sober man, reason serves right action. For Phocion himself,
within the ethical order of the city, reason is a powerful tool in the service of the good.
Furthermore, it is wisdom that is the best defence against the blind madwoman.
The centres of force in the painting are the citadel and the furious intensity of the
widow—and thirdly the invisible statue, right in the heart of the city, surreptitiously mocking its
brittle order. The current between the visible two takes the viewer beyond, into the heavens,
their bright white and blue a heightened projection of the living woman. At this point the
heavens themselves soar forward as a divine canopy over her head. She achieves the contact
with the sacred, a ‘death of death’ in the terms of Paul and Luther. In caressing the dead
remains, her Pietà, she becomes a vehicle for the transcendence of death.
The third order is sacred. It is not fully tragic, in the formative Greek sense, as
Nietzsche interpreted it, which has the individual annihilated by cruel destiny, but the
identifying audience rising out of the ashes, as it were, reborn, purified, with wonder and
exhilaration, and a renewed zest for life. Here we have the outrageous misfortune, the ashes
and the rebirth, but the central character, the widow, is not crushed. She is no Oedipus. Her
role is that of restoration, through carrying out suitable rites over the ashes of her husband, that
he may rest in peace, propitiating the nether gods, but equally that his spirit may rise to rule
over Athens, the ashes becoming the sacred site at the heart of the city. Thus she prays, that the
flame rekindle and rise. It does, and through the great forces of nature, massive trees, a rocky
citadel and the heavens. What she truly kindles is Resurrection.
It is a Stoic sacred with a Christian tinge.
The Catholic lines of the
Confirmation are entirely scrapped. Virtue remains unrewarded; evil goes unpunished. The
human world is not integrated into anything resembling a community.
It is divided
irreconcilably between the virtuous hero and the capricious and foolish mob. Of the mob
neither worship nor gratitude is asked. The citizens are not even damned—that Protestant line
from Ashdod is also gone. Here is the harsh Stoicism of the blind madwoman, where the most
that can be said of the people is that they are, in the words of Aeschylus, fortunate beyond all
right. Even in the comprehensively fatalist world of Sophocles the bad king in Antigone was
direly punished. There is some justice on earth. Not in The Ashes of Phocion.
Poussin has arrived at an abysmally low opinion of ordinary humanity. In a
letter to Chantelou of 1649 he snapped dismissively that the people are so stupid and inconstant
as to be capable of anything. There could be no more telling illustration than Plutarch’s Life of
Phocion. But Plutarch at least had the conspirators punished. In Poussin’s picture destiny is as
fickle as the people. Forty years earlier, in a striking parallel, Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus,
had worked through a similar response to the influence of Plutarch.
It is as if we are born into a grand natural order, reaching from the depths of the
demonic underworld to the heights of the sublime heavens, articulated through an established
creation of tree and rock, lake and city, animal and human, within which events are governed
by the fates. Poussin abstracted and enlarged this theme in his later work, the Landscape with
Diogenes. There he suggests that it is only in the solitariness and simplicity of cynical
detachment from human society and all the comforts of civilization that some fulfilment is
possible, a certain serene clarity before the grand indifference of the natural order into which we
are born and over which we have no influence. The Diogenes goes further: even such
philosophical sobriety is worth nothing without the intervention of grace.
There is affinity here with the Homeric view that the most plausible imagining
of what guides human events is a bunch of vain and capricious gods who spend their time
bickering among themselves and taking out their frustrations on helpless mortals below.
Poussin includes another major thread from The Iliad, that the human hierarchy ascends from
those who are small to those who are big. A person’s place in the hierarchy is given,
predestined. Achilles is born Achilles, the great warrior. Poussin joins the leading Protestant
theologians in their return to early Greek fatalism. But he distinguishes himself from Homer by
making his own big man, Phocion, virtuous. The Stoic hero is a good man.
The conception of faith here is itself Stoical, or in Christian terms, Protestant.
The light of Reason shines on Athens and its Euclidean order, but this light, as Luther
proclaimed, has no access to the darkness of faith. Poussin too has faith belonging in the dark,
outside the city walls, in exile from the human, crouching down over the ashes, inwardly
driven, on a grassy island where the Cartesian symmetries and clarity of Reason have no place,
where mortal eyes do not see.
If the widow were to use her reason it would tell her, as it told Luther, that the
world is a ruthlessly and pitilessly unjust place.9 God, if he moves here, seen through the eyes
of logic, looks capricious, and even maliciously so at times. If she were to reflect further—and
here I borrow from Montaigne’s Essays, well known to Poussin—she would conclude that the
most virtuous parents, doing their best, would be equally likely to produce a useless son like her
own. So much for human striving judged in any terms other than the Stoical ones of virtue in
and for itself, without any expectation of reward. She would find herself left with little
encouragement: fated character is destiny, and even that will not save you from the blind
madwoman. Her reason, in other words, would drive her to despair.
She is outside the walls of reason, acting by faith, just knowing. She has
abandoned human institutions, including churches. What she does have is conscience, ‘that
which does not allow man to suppress within himself what he knows’. Guided by it, she gets
on with what she has to do. Her virtue gets along perfectly well without the assistance of
reason. Her mood, however, is more haunted than the Calvinist Stoicism of Milton, singing the
death of Samson:
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the brest, no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame, nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.10
Yet Milton evokes her aspiration, as it was taught her by her own husband. Nothing but well
and fair.
The presiding symbolism of The Ashes of Phocion is Archimedean: ‘Give me a
place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ Culture is a rock. It is the unshakeable belief that
will not move under the feet when the blind madwoman strikes. Without such a rock a man
cannot even move himself, as Poussin illustrates with his prostrate exile, and his fearful maid.
Such a rock, to add to the metaphor, must be a sacred site, profane mineral become altar. Once
there is a sacred site, once the tragic underpinnings to the human condition are located, in place,
then ordinary life may proceed, with children being born into secure and vital communities,
where pleasure is taken in work, family, sport and art. This is the ideal, but.......!
The ideal is embodied in Phocion and his wife. The good life begins in passion,
the demonic spring of eros, uniting male and female. For it to be more than animal lust it needs
to touch the heavens. Conversely, once the demonic turns nasty, unstrung from the sacred, it
may even pervert the human capacity for inspiration, suggested in the painting in a sinister aura
which shadows the cringing exile, picked up in the maid’s fear—neither see the light.
On earth, just as we humans live collectively, a vital part of the divine resides in
the ethical. It too requires blood, not to invert into cold, rancorous duty and moralism. What
better illustration could there be than in the cheerfully coercive irony of Phocion’s: ‘Will
nobody make this fellow behave himself?’ However, from this point on in the narrative the
dream of an integration of the three metaphysical orders dissolves. Phocion and his wife are
irrecoverably distant from their fellow citizens.
Gillian Rose finds a more rational order in the painting. She takes the fine
classical buildings and the lack of foreboding as representing the real law that is restored by the
widow, who enacts true justice, through her mourning, her ‘intense work of the soul’.11 If
Poussin had intended to give his vision this degree of integration he would have built into the
scene cues that the citizens are about to be punished, as they are in Plutarch—he does just that
in a number of his other works, starting with The Plague of Ashdod, and including The Crossing
of the Red Sea. Pierre Rosenberg is surely closer to Poussin’s spirit when he interprets the
lesson of the work as bitter, contrasting the calm of nature with the funeral rites, in all an
‘exemplary illustration of the insignificance of life and the derisory condition of man.’12
In The Ashes of Phocion the rock is above, not under the feet. It is the centre
around which the city of Athens is built. The site itself is where the ashes lie, soil made sacred
by the life whose spirit is spilt there, dust to dust, and then rekindled by the Madonna widow
into the rock itself, and eventually to breathe through Temple and statue, as if the city of man
can only bear the sublimated potency—its direct force measured in the volume of the trees and
the gigantic granite monolith, next to which things human appear miserably puny. It is
therefore right that Athens has little consciousness of the rock on which it stands, or the heavens
under which it lives.
Of all of Poussin’s works, The Ashes of Phocion has struck some sort of
contemporary chord. Gillian Rose uses it as a foundation of her argument in her last book,
Love’s Work, published posthumously in 1995, and the painting is reproduced on the cover.
Wendy Beckett chose it to open her very popular BBC television art series, Sister Wendy’s
Odyssey. And Alain Mérot’s fine 1990 overview, Nicolas Poussin, gave it pride of place on
the dust jacket.
It may be that its lesson, as elucidated by Rosenberg, has got through,
contrasting a calm, grand and beautiful nature with the pitifulness of the human condition.
This lesson does speak to some modern perceptions.
Yet once the modern viewer advances into the fullness of Poussin’s narrative
he might be expected to recoil from its implications. Where is the justice? Where is the
providence? Where is the hope? Surely the Athenians should suffer, would suffer, if not
from some external retribution then at least in their own feelings of guilt, mounting with
time. Surely political well-being is dependent on some minimum of shared communal
virtue. Surely, at least in a modern democracy, the ethical is better integrated, and we are
less dependent on exemplary individuals. The question has been put.
Jewish thought in the aftermath of the Holocaust might find some affinity
with this Poussin. And what of the British electorate, in 1945 before the War was even over,
thanking Churchill for saving it from Hitler by resoundingly banishing him from office?
Since then, in easier times, it is simple to forget, and return to more benign assumptions
about human destiny.
At another level, Poussin is projecting a lesson for every individual. It goes
something like: do not expect to be saved by community, remembered by it, treated
according to your deserts by it. Nevertheless, you have a duty to it, duty for its own sake,
one you should apply yourself to, not with a grim self-denial, but with relish—assuming you
have that in you. If misfortune strikes, if you are treated unjustly, even outrageously, you
have no grounds for lament, for that is how things are. Fate, supernatural powers, God,
whatever, are neither providential nor merciful. Realism is necessary, for the Stoic hero,
who never complains. To withstand the blind madwoman you will need prodigious strength,
in particular two things, faith in what you do—the laws you obey—and companionship.
There is potential grace in both.
The focal symbol, alternating with rock, is ashes. It triggers a family of
images, Christian and other, which includes regeneration through annihilation, dying in order
to live, and Phoenix rebirth from the ashes. Poussin, in his wrestling with the story and its
import, may be suggesting a range of readings. One is explicit, and germane to the modern
viewer. Its instruction is to give up the hopes of your youth, all of them: of living happily
ever after, that there exist harmonies between fate, virtue and grace, that there is some sort of
progress in life, individual or social, that some benevolent spirit will watch over you, that
you might be rewarded for achievement—and if you are do not think it means much, apart
from temporary good fortune. Then, out of the ashes of hope, if you are not too dispirited, a
new flame may be coaxed alight. For that the other two theological virtues, faith and love,
will be needed.
Finally, if you understand and take on all this, then you may discover a love
for the world. The ultimate truth about The Ashes of Phocion is that it is a sublimely
beautiful landscape, rich in its range and modulation of colour, resonant with neo-classical
proportion, directed by a simple vertical, carrying the viewer up from the widow to the
heavens, rhythmic in its ascending spheres, in all asserting that the human world, in its own
creation of civilization, itself set within nature, is stipulated on a profound order—things,
including us, have their place. That order is not what you expect, or what you want, its logic
is far from ideal in human terms, but if you can come to accept it, then it may in itself, like
this painting, turn into a state of grace. Like all beautiful things it is there to be enjoyed.
Verdi, ‘Poussin and the ‘Tricks of Fortune’’, The Burlington Magazine, Nov. 1982.
Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin, Pallas Athene, London, 1995, p. 166, n. 22.
Ibid., pp. 165-8.
Verdi reads it as the tomb of a rich Athenian, earned by wealth rather than virtue (Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665,
Zwemmer, London, 1995, p. 276).
Verdi argues that it is Megara not just because of Plutarch, but following early sources which described
ancient Megara as built on two rocks (1995, p. 278). It is possible that Poussin has doubled up the reference.
Blunt, 1995, p. 236.
Cassiano dal Pozzo’s library held a wide collection of classical writings on architecture, which Poussin would
have been able to consult (D. L. Sparti, ‘The Dal Pozzo Collection Again’, The Burlington Magazine, August
Poussin took great care in planning the position of figures in his paintings, using a miniature stage with
figurines he could move around, so that he created multiple lines of sight within his three-dimensional effect
(Avigdor Arikha: ‘De la boîte, des figurines et du manniquin’, in Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat,
Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1994, pp. 44-7).
Martin Luther: On the Enslaved Will, VII, xix.
Samson Agonistes, lines 1721-4—written twenty years after Poussin painted Phocion.
Gillian Rose, Love’s Work, London, 1995, pp. 26 &35.
Rosenberg, 1994, p. 390.