Gathering of Manna is a large scale mythological painting (hanging in Louvre Museum, Paris) that conveys the dramatic force of the biblical divine act of the distribution of the Manna. The canvas aims to depict an entire people by showing groups of representative actors of both sexes and all ages. In a way, the scene is a rare occurrence: everyone is an active participant, as everyone must participate in order to survive; there is no room for psychological ambivalence. By choosing a theme with a secured engrossing dramatic impulse, Poussin might have attempted to explore pantheistic and holistic ideas (and ideals) of the relationship of all humanity with God. The Gathering of Manna is a unique case of reverse offering, which reinforces the symbiotic nature of that relationship.
The people are divided into several groups, each including actors that either collect, wonder, examine, or even fight for the Manna. The most consistently reappearing sentiment is of praising God with a characteristic thankful folding of the hands. By showing a range of emotions and activities Poussin credibly anchors a divine act in concrete reality and action. Regardless of what the people are doing, they are busy, and even the expressions of surprise seem as a matter-of-fact, inevitable reactions; this is a drama but not a melodrama.
Contrasts of small and enormous – more concretely of people and nature around them – constitute the “engine” of the scene. Most contrasts consist of oppositions of color – the small bright red patches of the cloaks and the dark, spreading ambiance, and of form – small human figures against oversized landscape masses of stones and trees. The red spots also refer to blood, and the fragility of human life – as opposed to the sombre, immovable and imperious landscape masses. It becomes obvious that the life of the depicted people (and life itself) is at the mercy of nature – and God, as the bible narrates.
Interestingly, Poussin makes the Manna almost invisible (minuscule white dots), effectively forcing many of the actors to grab air. This method of depicting the Manna may have several interpretations and meanings. First, this could be an ironical/parody device that expresses doubts in the miracle. Second, this (the entire painting) could be a test of the viewers’ faith – did the Israelites themselves imagine the whole thing, did the bible say the truth, or, perhaps, is it the viewers who cannot discern the Manna, but must believe? Third, this simply could be an ingenious pictorial solution to portray a substance of which was, and still is, little known.