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Nicolas Poussin - The Exposure of Moses

by Alexandra Tuschka

The exposure of the child already establishes a birth legend, as we know it from Oedipus or Romus and Remulus, and is therefore a popular moment in visual art. In Poussin's scene, seven people are present, all showing different emotions, which can only be revealed through knowledge of the Bible story. Moses' parents feel compelled to abandon their newborn baby because Pharaoh has ordered all babies to be drowned in the Nile. He feared that the Israelite people would grow too large. However, the parents - Amram and Jochebed - show heart and, trusting God, place the child in the water. This scene can be seen here.

The scene takes place on the banks of the Nile. The palace of the pharaoh dwells in the background and has similarities with the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. Other elements of the surroundings of Rome are also recognizable and obviously incorporated. The father is to be seen on the left in the edge of the picture, he is accompanied by the already somewhat older child Aaron. The father expresses his sorrow through his posture, the boy turns around and seeks eye contact with the mother. He also conveys the viewer's gaze. Jochebed returns the look. She kneels and releases the child, her left hand is open; her facial expression testifies to her despair. The lady in the center represents the older sister Miriam, who points with her finger warningly to Pharaoh. The gesture, however, also expresses the progress of the story, for the child is about to glide downstream into the arms of Pharaoh's daughter, where he will be safe. On the shore are two other figures, unimpressed by what is happening. They can be identified by their attributes - the arrows in the quiver and the instrument - as the Sphinx and the river deity Nile. They refer to the Egyptian environment, which Poussin did not see during his lifetime and thus had to resort to his imagination.

Nicolas Poussin - The Exposure of Moses

Oil on canvas, 1654, 105 x 204 cm, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford


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