Poussin's The Holy Family on the Steps by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A THOUSAND WORDS

Poussin's The Holy Family on the Steps

At first blush, Nicolas Poussin's painting The Holy Family on the Steps (1648) is a restrained and classical version of the conventional Holy Family of a thousand Christmas cards, or rather, an extended Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John (who, after all, must have been frequent visitors). Mary and Jesus occupy the central space; above Mary's right shoulder stands an urn filled with their special flower, the violet of humility. The open air above Jesus' head creates a kind of natural halo. At the left, Elizabeth directs her gaze toward Mary, and the infant John offers his baby cousin a piece of fruit from the basket at his feet. Joseph, cast in shadow, assumes an apparently subsidiary role at the right, filling out the triangle of the figural composition.

A contemporary engraving made after this painting suggests that there is more here than meets the eye. The print faithfully reproduces the painting but in addition bears the cryptic inscription, "Here is made manifest the hidden God." Surely this cannot refer to Jesus; his manifestation was not hidden, but made known in an epiphany to all the world, as is symbolized by the gifts of the Magi on the steps at Joseph's feet. Instead, there are clues here that this is not just the Holy Family but also a Trinity, the hidden God made manifest in all three Persons.

THIS ARTICLE ONLY AVAILABLE TO SUBSCRIBERS.
FOR QUICK ACCESS:


Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


more on art from the online archives

30.3—May/June 2017

St. Luke the Evangelist

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

33.2—March/April 2020

Christ Chapel at Hillsdale

An Architectural Sign of Mere Christianity by Michael Ward

32.4—July/August 2019

Sojourner Knight

on Single-Mindedness in Durer's Ritter, Tod, und Teufel by Anthony Costello

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!


personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!


RENEW your print/online
subscription

Purchase
Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!


RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!


RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.


more from the online archives

32.3—May/June 2019

Editing Jesus

on the Implications of Changing the Pater Noster by John M. McCarthy

31.2—March/April 2018

Millennial Mission

The Transmission of Christianity Is Not a New Task by Nathanael Devlin

31.4—July/August 2018

The Names of the Christian

Labels & the Ecumenism of Discipleship by James M. Kushiner

00