The Effects of Fear

October 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nicolas Poussin: Landscape With A Man Killed By A Snake (1648)

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake is by some described as “a study of fear”. In fact, another title that has been used for this painting is The Effects of Fear. Poussin has created a scene where theatrical gesturing, poses and facial expressions creates a drama taking place in this otherwise serene landscape. The way the figures have been placed, and how the landscape have been constructed creates a diagonal movement in the painting, showing the workings of fear.

There is another way to look at how space is constructed here. The drama that has been described is connected to a diagonal movement on a horizontal axis: From the corpse and the snake in the foreground, via the terrified man and frightened woman, to the oblivious or indifferent fishermen in the background.

Looking at the vertical axis, however, we could regard the water surface as a divider between above/below. The mirroring water surface becomes a divider between the visible world above the surface, and the invisible below. The serpent, a harbinger of death, crawling over the corpse, could be seen as coming from the realm below the surface, from the underworld. The dead man is already on his way down to the underworld; lying next to the water he is “in between”, his body is still above ground, but his arm and his leg are partly submerged in the water, crossing the boundary between the world above and the realm below.

The reflecting water surface, both hiding what’s below and creating an inverted world through mirroring, becomes a reminder of that which is hidden or invisible, yet always present.

See also:

Snakes, Serpents


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