The Plague of Ashdod, Poussin’s famous painting of 1630, is based on the Old Testament account of an epidemic affecting the Philistines after they had captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and moved it to their coastal city of Ashdod. According to Samuel 1:5, the Lord first destroyed the statue of their god Dagon, then unleashed a fierce epidemic characterized by what has variously been translated as tumors, swellings in the private areas, or (undoubtedly erroneously) hemorrhoids. Poussin began to paint The Plague of Ashdod while the bubonic plague was still raging throughout Italy though sparing Rome. He first called the painting The Miracle in the Temple of Dagon, but later it became known as The Plague of Ashdod.
Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy in 1594 and at the age of eighteen ran away from home because his parents opposed his becoming a painter. Arriving in Paris around 1612, at a time when the arts were flourishing under the regency of Marie de Medici, he obtained various commissions and gradually established his reputation but did not flourish. So in 1624, at the age of thirty, he went to Rome. There his early years were difficult; he also was infected with syphilis and treated with mercury. But gradually his fortune improved, and he began to receive more commissions. Around 1629, during the plague epidemic, he received a commission from Fabrizio Valguarnera to paint the Plague of Ashdod.
Valguarnera came from an old but no longer wealthy Catalan noble family. Having failed to become physician to the Royal Court in Madrid, he took up trading diamonds and dealing in classical art, having Italian and Flemish painters make fake copies of original paintings about stories from the Old Testament. He also engaged a thief to steal a shipment of diamonds in Madrid, and eventually had to flee to Rome. There he tried to offload his diamonds by trading them for paintings, was eventually brought to trial for theft, and died in prison. He had tried to pay for Poussin’s painting in diamonds, but Poussin testified at the trial that he accepted only cash.
While Poussin’s work was still incomplete, Valguarnera had commissioned the artist Angelo Caroselli to make an exact copy, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London and is titled “after Poussin.” There is yet another copy of the painting, an engraved version made in 1677 by Etienne Picart, now in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The original painting is now in the Louvre. It displays the ravages of the plague, rats scurrying on the floor, panic struck people fleeing in all directions, a dead woman lying in the foreground while her husband is pulling the baby away from the mother’s breast to prevent it contracting the disease. It is a moving document of how successive plague epidemics affected the Italian population in the fifteenth and sixteenth century; and it remains one of the most admired paintings of the greatest French master of the Baroque.
, MD, Editor-in-Chief