Painted in Rome by the French artist Nicolas Poussin, the Seven Sacraments is one of the greatest sets of paintings in the history of Western art. The founder of the classical tradition in French art, Poussin aimed to achieve a noble and pure style of painting, preferring to paint for private patrons who shared his scholarly interests. He was known to have carefully planned his compositions, using wax figures arranged on a model stage to produce the desired effect.
This series of paintings is remarkable for its clarity, symmetry and quiet restraint, with drama created through gesture and contrasts of light and shade. The Seven Sacraments represents each of the seven holy rites of the Roman Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Penance, Ordination, Holy Eucharist and Extreme Unction. Poussin’s aim in painting the series was to convey the solemn nature and religious learning within each rite.
The second series of the Seven Sacraments was painted for Paul Fréart de Chantelou, a French collector and patron of the arts. Chantelou was a friend of the Italian scholar and collector Cassiano dal Pozzo, who had commissioned the first series from Poussin in the late 1630’s. The situation of each scene in the series within the context of Early Christian History was partly in response to Chantelou’s demands, as well as Poussin’s intellectual interests. Close attention paid to archaeological detail in each of the paintings. When originally displayed, each painting would have been protected with a curtain and viewed individually.
The first version of the Seven Sacraments has since been dispersed. The second version was purchased by the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater in 1798, and forms part of the Bridgewater Collection, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery since 1945.