The scene depicts a dying man being anointed with oil in accordance with the rites of the Catholic faith. Poussin here reworks an earlier form of death-bed scene inspired by classical sculpture, The Death of Germanicus (1627-8, Minneapolis Institute of Art), commissioned by Cardinal Barberini. Poussin also drew inspiration from a group of sarcophagi in the Villa Albani, in Rome, representing the Death of Meleager, later engraved in 1645 by the French painter, François Perrier.
Other examples of Poussin using classical prototypes include the coffered ceiling and a tripod table with each leg imitating that of a mythical beast, such as a lion or griffin. Poussin’s careful study of Roman attire is reflected in the classicising style of the robes and gowns. Circular motifs, such as the one on the rear wall, are commonly found on Roman funerary stelae or stone slabs, symbolising eternity and the cycle of life and death.
In the centre of the composition the priest, dressed in a striking yellow robe with intricate folds and holding a chalice, is accompanied by two acolytes, one holding a candle or torcia, the other kneeling and holding a copy of the liturgy.
The poses of the mourners are also based on classical funerary reliefs. Behind the dying man in deep shade, is his mother, who gently cradles his head, while at the foot of the bed his wife covers her face in a gesture of inconsolable grief. The figure with her hands joined in silent prayer is the man’s daughter, next to her is an elderly man presumably a doctor or apothecary – who hands a flagon to a youth. At the centre another woman wrings her hands in anguish, while at the far right a servant turns in sharp contraposto as she exits the room.
The figures are arranged in a stage-like setting, with the front edge of the floor deliberately exposed, suggesting the actions unfold on a raised platform. This dramaturgical effect is further enhanced by the protagonists’ animated gestures and facial expressions and the use of strong, non-naturalistic, lighting that overpowers the weak daylight coming from the window.
Perspective lines helped Poussin to position the figures and also add emphasis to the pattern of the floor tiles, doors, windows and architectural recesses.