Artibus et Historiae no. 65 (XXXIII)

2012, ISSN 0391-9064

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BRENDAN COLE - The Mask of Dionysus. A Reinterpretation of Poussin’s Triumph of Pan The Mask of Dionysus. A Reinterpretation of Poussin’s Triumph of Pan

The Triumph of Pan of 1636 is undoubtedly one of the greatest masterpieces by Poussin now hanging in the National Gallery, London. In addition to its remarkably inventive visual poetry, it is a scholarly work of great intelligence that marks a high point in the artist’s career in Rome during the 1630s. The thorough planning that went into its creation, which is evident from the numerous preparatory studies that have survived in various collections, clearly shows Poussin’s care and concern to create a work of distinction, both visually and intellectually.

No fewer than eleven preliminary sketches survive for this work. The meticulous planning and thought that went into the painting therefore suggests that the subject itself must have been of some importance to the artist, and no doubt to his patron as well. However, the intensity of effort, and unique visual impact, of Poussin’s Triumph results in a work that is not easily placed within the repertoire of Poussin’s Dionysian imagery. Despite the fact that it is mostly based on motifs associated with the retinue of Dionysus, the actual narrative of this work is not unequivocally clear and has, therefore, remained largely allusive.

It is worth emphasising that Poussin had an inexhaustible interest in themes relating to the narratives, rites and ceremonies connected with Dionysus, and probably painted more Bacchic scenes than any of his contemporaries. Most of these images closely follow standard narratives derived from classical sources and contemporary mythographies, and can be interpreted accordingly with a relative degree of ease. However, an exception to this has to be Poussin’s Triumph, for which there is no evident literary or figurative source upon which its iconography is derived, and it appears, therefore, to be an entirely original invention on Poussin’s part.

This article re-examines key aspects of the work’s iconography, as well as the context in which it was created in order to offer a more specific interpretation of its narrative. Drawing on classical texts and contemporary mythologies, the author proposes that this work is principally concerned with Dionysus rather than Pan, and suggests that the scene is derivative of celebrations such as the Anthesterian and Lenaean festivals, which were connected with Dionysus, and that it is therefore Dionysus who is represented in the form of the gilded statue at the centre of the work.

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