Close Window
Nicolas Poussin, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus

Nicolas Poussin's altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was commissioned for the Chapel of St. Erasmus in St. Peter's in 1629 as part of the ongoing decoration of the great basilica. As the artist's most significant commission to date and planned for one of the most important public sites in Europe, Poussin was probably obliged to produce not only a preliminary compositional drawing but also a painted modello (model) to give his patrons a clear idea of his intentions. This exercise provides the visual material to study Poussin's artistic process for this altarpiece. The section below at the left uses an animation program allowing you to observe the transition from drawing to model to finished work.

Part of the artistic challenge involved developing a composition on a monumental scale (3.2 meters in height) that depicted the horrifically violent theme of the saint's martyrdom. Erasmus of Formiae was a Bishop in the fourth century CE. An early Christian martyr, he was tortured during one of the Roman persecutions by having his intestines wound out on a windlass while still alive. There is no way to know if the event is historically valid, but this particular scene had been painted by other artists including the anonymous altarpiece of the same subject that stood on the altar of the Chapel of Erasmus in St. Peter's before Poussin's new work replaced it.

This exercise requires the Marcromedia Flash 5 Plug-in.

Download Macromedia Flash 5 Player now.

Related Links

The Judgment of Solomon (Macromedia Flash 5, 273k)

  The Massacre of the Innocents (Macromedia Flash 5, 287k)

Poussin,The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, preparatory drawing, (pen and ink, 20.5 x 12.3 cm.), Florence, Uffizi.
Poussin, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 1628–29, (oil on canvas, 100 x 74 cm.), The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This is the modello for the altarpiece.
Poussin, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 1628-29, (oil on canvas, 320 x 186 cm.), Pinacoteca, Vatican City. Signed: Nicolaus Pusin fecit.

The Life of Erasmus

Erasmus (Ital. Elmo; Sp. Ermo). Early Christian martyr, bishop of Formiae in Campania, he died c. 303. According to legend his executioners disemboweled him, winding his entrails round a windlass. As patron saint of Mediterranean sailors his attribute was a capstan and this, according to some, was the origin of the story of his martyrdom. He is depicted lying naked on a block while his bowels are wound on to a windlass (Poussin: Vatican Gall.). As a devotional figure he is dressed as a bishop with a capstan for attribute, or occasionally a sailing ship. Carpenters' nails pushed under his finger-nails allude to further tortures. (From James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, New York, 1974, p. 115.)

Original Location of the altarpiece in St. Peter's Basilica

Nicolas Poussin's altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus was commissioned for the Chapel of St. Erasmus in St. Peter's in 1629. The chapel is located in the north transept of the building. The original painting was moved to the Vatican museum and a mosaic copy was put in its place.

Itlay, Rome, St. Peter's, groundplan.
Itlay, Rome, St. Peter's, View into the north transept.

back to top

Columbia University Department of Art History and Archaeology Contact Us