Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was born in the town of Le Andelys in Normandy. In 1624 he travelled to Rome, the art capital of Europe, where he attracted the patronage of wealthy and influential collectors, many of whom held diplomatic positions in the service of the Catholic Church. Amongst his most influential patrons, were the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) and the latter’s secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657). Poussin made numerous studies of well-known antiquities represented in Cassiano’s renowned Museo Cartaceo or Paper Museum, which provided documentary evidence of Roman customs, costume and architecture. His early years in Rome were also spent making copies of old master paintings by leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, including Raphael and Annibale Carracci.
During the late 1630s, Cassiano commissioned Poussin to paint a set of paintings representing the Seven Sacraments, which he hung in a room named after them, the Stanza de’ Sagramenti, in his palace in Rome. This rarely painted subject not only appealed to his patron’s interest in classical aniquity, but also promoted the decrees of the Counter-Reformation Church. Since the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation had denounced papal authority and contested the validity of the seven sacraments. Amongst the first visitors to see the newly installed paintings was the French Ambassador to the Papal Court, Paul Fréart de Chantelou (1609-94), who was so impressed that he persuaded Poussin to paint a second series representing the same subjects, between 1644 and 1648. During the 17th and 18th centuries, artistic representations of mythological and religious subjects were at the forefront of academic debates amongst art theorists, artists and collectors, and themselves formed part of wider discussions on the precepts of history painting, the highest genre of art. Drawing upon the works of Poussin and his contemporaries, scholars attempted to gain an understanding of individual artistic styles and working methods in relation to colour, drawing and composition. From the outset, opinions have been divided over which of the two sets of Sacraments should be considered superior in terms of their painterly qualities, yet both remain undoubtedly ambitious schemes in their own right, and helped to secure Poussin’s place as one of the greatest artists of his time.