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Nicolas Poussin - Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe

by Alexandra Tuschka

Is it Zeus who sends furious lightning across the landscape here? A sign of doom? At the very least, the wild weather conditions heighten the drama and mirror the tragedy of the front scene. Here Pyramus, who has killed himself by falling on his sword, lies on the ground. All life has already drained from his body. The sword still lies as a silent witness next to the corpse and traces of blood can be seen on the floor. Only a few steps away, Thisbe is struggling against the strong wind. She has spread her arms in despair and her mouth is open to scream. Soon she will reach her beloved and throw herself on the sword out of lovesickness as well. A double suicide for love. Both belonged to hostile families, and were only allowed to love each other secretly.... Wait a minute. This sounds familiar? The proximity to "Romeo and Juliet" doesn't come from nowhere, because Pyramus and Thisbe are the ancient models for the prominent and tragic love story and were an inspiration for Shakespeare.

According to Ovid's source of the "Metamorphoses", our protagonists Pyramus and Thisbe grew up in neighboring houses in Bablyon. They lived wall to wall and could communicate with each other through a small gap. In public, they understood each other through sign language. One day they arranged to meet at the tomb of Ninus under the great mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first and encountered a lioness. Fleeing from it, she lost her cloth, which the lioness tore. So there was blood on the veil, but it did not come from Thisbe, but from animal prey that the lioness had torn before. Thisbe brought herself to safety. Pyramus, who arrived a short time later, saw only the bloodstained veil of his beloved and believed Thisbe dead. Out of lovesickness, he threw himself on his sword. When Thisbe returned, she saw the corpse and did likewise. Her blood splattered the white fruit of the mulberry tree. Before she died, she asked it to always bear blood-red fruit out of grief. This double suicide is particularly tragic because it is based on a misunderstanding.

Poussin decides in his work, unlike many other artists, to subordinate this story to nature and to give form to Thisbe's inner state of mind on the outside as well. Thus we see moving trees, but also a still lake. We see farmers trying to defy the lion, but also an unimpressed herd in the middle section. Inability? Symbolism? Is the contrast of the silence to the storm meant to reflect the two states of the protagonists? Two lightning bolts strike in the background, one of them into an oak tree - the tree that stands for eternity and permanence. Is the crack in the cloud cover also meant to remind us of the crack in the wall of the house? The city, on the other hand, stands untouched and - typical of Poussin - has many antique elements. Through the many figures he enlivens the picture and distracts the viewer's attention a little from the scene in front. However, there is no tree that can be clearly identified as a mulberry tree.

Nicolas Poussin - Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe

Oil on canvas, 1651, 191.0 x 274.0 cm, Städel Museum in Frankfurt


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