This curious scene, painted by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (c. 1594–1665), may look like an episode out of ancient Greek or Roman myth, but it actually comes from a story set in the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). The poem in question is the Gerusalemme liberata (or The Liberation of Jerusalem), written by Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Poussin’s choice of ancient-styled gear in the painting works quite well with Torquato Tasso’s poem, for the Gerusalemme liberata more closely resembles ancient epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid than an actual account of the First Crusade. In short, Tasso’s poem is a fictitious tale, featuring a cast of characters that is a mixture of purely fictional characters and some historical figures, set together in a largely unhistorical plot that takes place at the time of the First Crusade. Like the ancient epics, supernatural forces play a large role in Tasso’s tale—yet, instead of Olympian or Capitoline gods intervening in human affairs, it is now God and the Devil, with their respective armies of angels and demons, who influence the war. Some old-school deities, however, such as Fortune and the Furies, do make appearances in Tasso’s poem. And besides demons, Tasso also livened up his tale with wizards, witches, and a varied host of monsters.
Nicolas Poussin’s painting features the fantastical, supernatural and mythical side of Torquato Tasso’s poem. As a prelude to what can be seen above, a powerful witch named Armida had taken captive a crusader named Rinaldo. The anciently-outfitted warriors shown above, named Carlo and Ubaldo (or Charles and Hubald), were sent on a rescue mission to free Rinaldo from his prison. Nevertheless, their rescue mission would turn out to be more difficult and arduous than they could have imagined. Although Rinaldo had been captured between Jerusalem and Antioch, he was thereafter taken by the witch as far away as the Canary Islands (nicknamed the Fortunate Isles). The rescue party, however, would fight supernatural with supernatural. The crusader characters encountered an unnamed sage, who provided the rescue party with a golden magic wand. This sage also directed the rescuers to a mysterious woman, who turned out to be the goddess, Fortune. With her help, the rescue party was easily shipped all the way to the Fortunate Isles without any difficulties. Yet, now that the sea journey was over, the hard part of the quest began. Armida was a mighty witch, after all, and her island lair was defended by a wide variety of magical and mythical creatures. In the painting above, Nicolas Poussin depicts the first creature that the rescuers encountered—a dragon. Tasso described the scene:
“Its crest and front scaled with pale gold, it strode,
neck swollen thick with rage and eyes aflame,
breathed smoke and blight, and covered all the road
beneath its bloated belly as it came.
Now it withdraws into itself, now node
on node uncoils, dragging its monstrous frame.
Thus to its wonted place of watch it slides
but does not slow the warriors’ rapid strides.
Already Charles has drawn to strike the drake,
when the other shouts: ‘What’s this? And do you mean
by strength of hand or weaponry to make
the reptile guardian vanish from the scene?
The charmed gold wand he then begins to shake;
the monster hears it whistling, shrill and keen,
and fearful at the sound, and swift to flee,
it slithers off and leaves that passage free.”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 15, stanzas 48-49)
Such is the scene that inspired Nicolas Poussin’s painting. In the background, on the left side of the canvas, Fortune can be seen in the boat she used to ferry the rescuers to the witch’s island lair. The dragon can be seen on the right side of the canvas, snarling at the intruders. Carlo (or Charles) must be the figure in orange, for he has his sword drawn and at the ready. Ubaldo (or Hubald), however, wields the golden magic wand that would scare away the dragon.
Writen by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.