Poussin depicts each sacrament as an event described in the Bible, with the exception of Confirmation and Extreme Unction for which he referred instead to the liturgical events of the early Church.
Baptism is represented by the figure of Saint John baptising Christ; a familiar religious scene symbolising the act of Christ receiving God’s grace. This represents the ceremony that worshipers re-enact as part of their faith. The order in which the series of sacraments was painted is unknown, however this scene is thought to have been the last, started shortly before Poussin departed for Paris in 1640 to serve as court painter to King Louis XIII.
Penance shows Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee, as referred to in the scriptural passages of Luke 7:38. The figures recline on an ancient banqueting table or triclinium, in accordance with ancient Roman practice. Poussin made several copies of similar scenes from drawings and paintings in Dal Pozzo’s museum. This painting was destroyed by fire in 1816 at Belvoir Castle, and is now known through the engraving reproduced here by Jean Dughet (1614–1676).
The sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, is represented through the depiction of the Last Supper. Christ is shown blessing the cup of wine, signifying his spiritual presence in this rite. The composition was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated mural of the same subject in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, painted around 1495.
Ordination depicts Christ giving the keys to Saint Peter. In the Catholic faith, this act symbolised Christ appointing Peter as the first Pope, invested with absolute authority on earth, in the same way that Christ would hold dominion in Heaven. This scene shows the influence of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons of the same subject created for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, which Poussin is likely to have visited during his many years in Rome (they are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Marriage represents the union of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph taking place in a classically inspired portico or entrance hall. Church fathers such as St. Augustine, viewed the marriage as embodying the unification of devotion and child rearing.
Confirmation represents a ceremony in two parts: in the foreground a priest anoints the forehead of a child with chrism, a consecrated oil, whilst another places a fillet or headscarf on a second child, watched by a group of mothers and children, who themselves await their turn.