Some critics consider The Death of Germanicus (painted in 1627, in France, hanging in the The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), Nicolas Poussin’s early masterpiece. The painting presents a linear, barelief-like scene with several emotional pivots, all induced by the death of the Roman general (read full Britannica article on Germanicus Julius Caesar). Lying on the bed and enshrouded in white, he is immediately recognized; the ghastly greenish tone of his face implies poisoning, the most probable cause of death according to historians.
Heroic gestures and stoic facial expressions, including that of Germanicus himself, decide the emotional current of the central scene, where the general and his officers are having a last words moment. Two less forceful, though just as passionate scenes, enframe the central act with poignant resignation and sorrow – and diffuse the intensity in the center. Each of the groups contains its own dynamic and emotive tone; the women and the children near the bedside are particularly notable for adding a shade of naïve surprise (by the children) and compassion. The resulting visual-emotional scheme of an enclosed A-B-A structure provides compositional harmony and completeness. Both eventually translate into an aesthetic quality.
Pikes play manifold roles in the composition. Bursting from the single-block group of mourners, they resemble, as a visual metaphor, solar ejections: the telling signs of the tremendous heat and pressure within. On the other hand, their sharp and edgy tips also become a sublimation of the suffering below – and yet the same instruments deal and bring death, the very same theme of the painting. The slender shafts may further allude to the precariousness of the future political situation (which, once again, is decided by the same spears). Finally, the way they pierce the space above the legionnaires is abstractly suggestive of the inflicted pain on the dying man.
The spacious and hollow grandeur of the interior seems to alienate itself from the tragic proceedings. But, this empty monochrome space calmly overseeing the scene also adds a touch of objectivity necessary to bring out the historical significance of Germanicus’ death – or, indeed, its historicity on the whole.
Poussin (read Britannica full article on Nicolas Poussin) is known to had deliberately replicated ancient costumes, furniture and architecture. By giving these props a special attention in this painting he reminds us of the strict factual data – the time and era of the depicted occurrence – which may have become blurred in the emotionality and the chamber-intimate atmosphere (perhaps echoing Rembrandt) immediately inside the crowd.