HANGRY: ‘The Gathering of Manna in the desert’ by Nicolas Poussin (1637)

HANGRY: ‘The Gathering of Manna in the desert’ by Nicolas Poussin (1637)

 The narrative of today’s first reading begins with some grouchy murmurs and a death – wish. After nearly four hundred years the Israelites have finally been liberated and are marching forward towards freedom. And yet, one month down the lane, they are complaining and longing to go back to slavery. Why? One may ask.

The journey to the Promised Land is not an easy path. It is the ‘road less taken’. The congregation finds itself in the midst of stark wilderness and wasteland. They are gripped by insecurity, anxiety and worst – hunger! Irritated and hangry at once they complain, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt when we sat around vessels of meat and ate all the food we wanted, whereas you have brought us to this desert to let the whole assembly die of starvation..’ Notice how conveniently they blame God for their enslavement and their current food crisis.

In response Yahweh does not rebuke them. He simply accedes to their request and rains down bread a.k.a. manna from heaven. ‘What is it?’ or ‘man hû’ the Israelites ask each other.

The raining of the bread from heaven is not the soul of today’s story. The crux lies in its aftermath. The miracle of the manna was a test by which Yahweh discerned His people’s willingness to follow His instructions. Adhering to this inquiry, the French artist Nicolas Poussin through his famous painting, virtually transports us to the encampment of the Israelites at Sinai.

At first it is disconcerting. We encounter swarms of figures, sombre colours and barren masses of stones and trees. The multifarious groups are caught in a complexity of disordered actions. Everyone’s on the move. As we make our way through the painting, Poussin comes our rescue. He uses light, colour and gestures to guide our gaze through this chaotic maze.

We begin with the duo in the foreground. A graceful young man seems to be guiding his elderly father towards the activity at the centre.  A cluster of men have gathered around Moses and Aaron. As the High Priest, garbed in white, thanks God for His divine providence; the prophet directs the viewer towards the source of the miracle. The men surrounding Moses and Aaron are engaged in a variety of expressions. Some raise their hands towards heaven in gratitude, others bow down in reverence. Their adoration is mixed with fear and respect for their leaders. Still others are astonished and praise the wonders of God.

But as we traverse deeper into the painting, wonder gives way to wandering and the miracle gives way to a mundane mood. Not everyone is excited by the action in the foreground. Some are asleep, others lost in thoughts and still others are seen digging for food in the wrong places. The fragile humans are surrounded by a massive, boring and an unforgiving landscape.

The harshness of the scene propels us to move back to the madness in the foreground. As we march to the right we are brushed by a group of nine figures, each of them engrossed in the food gathering activity. Some are seen hoarding the mysterious grains in vessels while others stare upwards seeking more. A young man pushes away his fellow Israelite trying to grasp the fallen manna while an upturned ornamental goblet awaits rescue.  Even a new-born is observed gobbling down the seeds.

Well if this is not absurd enough, there is more. Notice the kneeling mother who directs our attention to the left. A trio seems lost in their own world. It consist of a young woman breast-feeding her elderly mother while calming her naked whiny child. Each of them seems to be supporting the other and together they form a world of their own. What sort of ambiguity is this?  What is Poussin trying to convey through this obscurity?

The brilliant Poussin converts ambiguity into allegory. He draws our attention to a deeper, more profound phenomenon. The young breast-feeding woman is reminiscent of the ever nurturing Yahweh who promises to never forget His children. Both the toddler and the elderly woman represent Israel. As the young mother affectionately gazes at her cranky little one she assures him of her support and care in youth and old-age, in the wilderness and in the Promised Land!

The mother’s sacrifice recalls the greater Sacrifice at Calvary. Her nurturing gesture resounds the words of Jesus in the Gospel: ‘I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall never be hungry and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty….You must work not for perishable food but for lasting food which gives eternal life.’

The painful journey of the Israelites is not an ancient story. It is about you and me and our journey from sin to salvation. Like a mother, Christ sustains us through the Holy Eucharist. On the feast of St. John Marie Vianney let’s whisper a prayer for all priests who have dedicated their lives in breaking the Word and the Bread so that we may be nourished as one Body in Christ.

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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