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 . . .

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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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more on art from the online archives

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