‘And there followed him great multitudes … And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him. And he … taught them, saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …” … And it came to pass, when Jesus ended these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching.’ Matthew 4:25, 5: 1–3 and 7: 28
Christ, robed in blue and flanked by the Twelve Apostles is shown seated at the summit of a rocky hill against a backdrop of trees. The ‘multitudes’ are gathered around the base of this sylvan outcrop but although groups can be seen in the middle distance to left and right, Claude has hardly gone out of his way to exaggerate the size of the assembly. As the momentous pronouncements are carried on the gentle breeze some of those present can be seen to react to their import; but life carries on – sheep graze, a dog sleeps, small sailing boats ply distant calm waters.
Behind the knoll we can see an epic landscape bathed in an ethereal light. To the right a mountain dominates the scene and a large body of water fills the middle distance. It seems that the central hill might obscure an important geographical feature because the vista to the left, where a river meanders toward the horizon amidst verdant countryside, appears to be set at an appreciably lower altitude than the balancing space to the right. What Claude has done here is to present us with a compressed version of the geography of the Holy Land – the distant mountain represents Mount Lebanon rising above the Sea of Galilee; to the left, we see (nearest to us) the Dead Sea and the river Jordan – all transported from the sun-baked Levant to the more temperate climes of the Roman campagnia, the model for all Claudian landscapes.
Within Claude’s oeuvre this is a most unusual painting. Commissioned by François Bosquet, Bishop of Montpellier, it is one of his largest canvases and it was the first in which he constructed a pictorial topography to tie in with his chosen subject matter. On the reverse of one of the five sketches he made for this painting he drew a map noting the salient geographical features of Palestine.
But it doesn’t matter what part of the world this painting purports to represent. Claude is really representing a state of mind – a nostalgia for a lost idyll, whether it be biblical or (more usually) classical. He is a master of the idealised landscape, suffused with a magical luminosity, where human kind is at one with nature – an integral part of a world of unimaginable felicity in which simple, contented lives are led in surroundings of bounteous beauty.
1655 Rembrandt: The Flayed Ox (The Carcass of Beef), Paris, Musée du Louvre
1655 Nicolas Poussin: Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, New York, Metropolitan Museum
1656 Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado