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.
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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.
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