Poussin’s Painting Reminds us of a Past not yet Overcome

Published 16 May 1999
Painting of 'The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem' by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Ben Gurion airport will this week greet a new arrival about to take up residence in Jerusalem, with a fascinating perspective to offer on Israeli society as it approaches the elections. What is unusual is that the arrival is not a person but a painting, and it comes with a story.

In October 1995, Southeby’s in London held a sale of paintings. They had been assembled by an eccentric British farmer, Ernest Onians, who had a passion for art and was a compulsive buyer at country sales. He had no room to hang most of the pictures he acquired. At his death several were found stacked in a chicken shed.

One caught the eye of art expert Sir Denis Mahon. It was attributed to the minor seventeenth century Roman artist Pietro Testa, described as a painting of the Sack of Carthage, and valued at £15,000. Sir Denis suspected that all three guesses were wrong. One detail was out of place. Among the loot being carried away by the plundering soldiers was a menorah, which meant that the scene was not Carthage. That insight led to one of the great art discoveries of the last twenty years.

Eventually, after cleaning away the varnish and some nineteenth century overpainting, the original canvas was revealed. Sir Denis’ intuition was correct. It was not a minor work by Pietro Testa. It was a painting of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the seventeenth century master, Nicolas Poussin, painted in Rome in 1626 for Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and later presented to Cardinal Richelieu – a work missing, presumed lost, for almost three hundred years.

News of the discovery reached Lord Rothschild who realised that the right home for a classical painting of Jerusalem destroyed was not London but Jerusalem itself. He bought it on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation and gave it to the Israel Museum, where it will now hang in memory of the great Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin who died a year and a half ago.

For a month prior to its removal to Israel, the painting has been on exhibition at London’s National Gallery, and it was there, together with the Gallery’s Director, that I gave a lecture on its significance. As I spoke, I was struck by the continuing resonance of the scene.

As is clear from the painting, Poussin worked on the basis of Josephus’ account of the last days of the Second Temple. We still do not know how accurate that account is. One aspect, though, finds strong echoes in the rabbinic sources. Israeli society at the time was fatefully divided. The fractures ran deep. There were religious divides between Sadducees and Pharisees, social tensions between rich and poor, cultural differences between cosmopolitans and parochials, and political disputes between those in favour of a war against Rome and those who sought coexistence.

This left Israel critically weakened as it prepared to face one of its great adversaries, the Rome of Vespasian and Titus. There are times, reading Josephus, when it seems that the Jews inside Jerusalem were more intent on fighting one another than the enemy outside. The Talmud tells us that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, leader of the peace party, had to have himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin for fear of assassination by zealots. Any connection between those events and today is incidental.

Or is it?

In four thousand years of history, Jews have achieved most things except one: the ability the live together for a prolonged period as a cohesive nation under conditions of self-rule. Jews disagree. So do every other people under the sun. The challenge of politics is to contain disagreement, by civility and the bonds of shared identity, so that the nation holds together in pursuit of the common good. Israel failed that challenge in the days of the First and Second Temples and paid a supremely heavy price.

What is striking about Israeli society today is not the differences between the various sectors but the language in which they are expressed. The religious, to the secular, are a threat to democracy. The secular, to the religious, are a threat to Jewish identity. One sees the other as ayatollas; the other sees the first as Hebrew-speaking gentiles. This is the language of self-reinforcing estrangement. In historical terms, it is all too familiar.

There are many issues on Israel’s election agenda. Most, though, will not be entirely in Israel’s hands. Peace will depend on Israel’s neighbours. The economy will depend on global trends. One thing is entirely in Israel’s power – the relations between Jew and Jew. Until a voice emerges from the religious community, showing the power of Torah to unite not divide, to inspire not intimidate, to embrace not to alienate, Poussin’s painting will hang as a terrible reminder of a past not yet overcome.

Detail from the painting shows the menorah in 'The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem' by Nicolas Poussin
Detail from the painting: the menorah