The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin

Neil Bartlett

The Royal London Hospital, London
01 July 1997 - 07 July 1997

A moving personal meditation on the defining moments in human life written and performed by Neil Bartlett in a lecture room at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel for a week in July 1997. A year later the original solo work was developed into a dramatic oratorio titled simply Seven Sacraments, and performed by a full orchestra, choirs, schoolchildren, and professional ballet dancers, alongside Bartlett. 

The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin was Bartlett's first solo work for four years, and Artangel's first commission of a new work using spoken word. It was based on Poussin's suite of seventeenth century paintings, The Seven Sacraments, which depict precise moments in historical time - the moments in which the sacraments of the Christian church were instituted, from Baptism to Extreme Unction. Originally commissioned in 1644, the completed paintings now hang in the National Gallery of Scotland. For The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin Bartlett reinvented these images, connecting the past to the present in a way that makes us re-imagine both. 

Back in 17th-cenrury Rome, Poussin said that he wanted people to come quietly to the Sacraments, to ponder their meanings deeply. I hope I've found a place and a way of performing that will make that possible, in London, now. – Neil Bartlett, 1997

Image: Robin Whitmore (left) and Neil Bartlett (right) during the performance of The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin, 1997

Seven Sacraments

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The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin 

Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel; July 1997

Bartlett's text was made up of original writing based around the content of Poussin's paintings, the sacraments that they represent and the way they are enacted in modern life. He also quoted sections from the Bible and lines of John Donne, the 17th-century English metaphysical poet and cleric of the Church of England. For a week Bartlett performed his solo work in a lecture theatre in the bowels of The Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road: the audience gathered at the main entrance were lead through the buildings corridors as the day-to-day functions continued around them. 

In the theatre Bartlett appeared on stage in a white doctors coat and later on a backless surgical gown. Alongside him was visual artist Robin Whitemore, a previous collaborator of Bartlett's, who drew details from the Sacraments paintings on a blackboard as the performance took place beside him. The only other person involved in the production was leading lighting designer Rick Fisher, who projected the Sacraments paintings - Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Penance, Ordination, Eucharist and Extreme Unction (Final Anointing or Last Rites) - onto Bartlett as he performed. 

For the final sacrament of extreme unction the audience moved from the lecture theatre to an adjacent room containing a single, empty bed with a pillow dented with the impression a human head might leave, a picture of Poussin's Extreme Unction propped up beside it, and Bartlett silently mourning. 

Following the project Bartlett's text was published in a book by Cornerhouse, alongside the drawings that Whitmore had produced during the performances. 

Seven Sacraments

Brighton / Nottingham / London; May 1998

In 1998 Bartlett was joined by composer Nicolas Bloomfield and choreographer Leah Hausman to explore the idea of Poussin's Sacraments further and present a performance in places of worship, locations that have already witnessed thousands of people trying to understand the seven moments in time and life that are called sacraments. From his original script, they developed a dramatic oratorio which increased the performers from the solo Bartlett to a cast of over 100 musicians, singers and dancers. 

For hundreds of years, congregations assembled to recite the words laid down in 1559 setting out the correct way to address important occasions - whenever a child arrived; when two people publicly declared their love; and when, finally, the last goodbyes had to be spoken for the dead. Sermons were delivered, choirs made churches ring with psalms.

Bartlett, Bloomfield and Hausman wanted to ask what about us, now? What words, what stories and what music can we use? What shall we say and what shall we feel at those moments in our lives?

Seven Sacraments dealt with these questions, not replacing old ceremonies but instead finding echoes of the old words, music and gestures in our own lives. The text of the performance was fragments from the Elizabethan prayerbook services, once again with elements of the Bible and sermons of John Donne, and Neil Bartlett's original writing which was augmented by the different children who performed at each venue. Large churches were chosen as the touring venues, a deliberate choice by the artist wanting to replicate the largest celebration and ceremony of the sacraments.

Seven Sacraments was the final work by musical theatre production company Gloria, a collaboration between Bartlett, Bloomfield, Hausman and Simon Mellor. 

Read more about the Seven Sacraments performances, the cast and production team

Image: Performance of Seven Sacraments. Photograph: Mike Laye

The making of The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin

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I remember ... feeling freer and fiercer and more queer than I ever have (on stage) in my life. – Neil Bartlett

The making of The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin

Feeling freer and fiercer and more queer than I ever have

Nicolas Poussin's great series of paintings known as The Seven Sacraments hangs in a small, dark, marble-floored room in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. In the summer of 1994 I noted in my diary that I had visited this room every year for the past fifteen years of my life, and had cried each time. I realised as I wrote that these paintings were going to be the material of my next piece of work.

A year later, looking for a possible site for the piece, Michael Morris took me to the Edinburgh City Morgue – he pretended that we were reconnoitring a location for a film. In the Chapel of Rest, I noticed that the pane of glass through which relatives are invited to view the corpse was of exactly the same dimensions as one of Poussin's canvasses. Around this one detail the text for the performance began to cohere. Michael first heard it, in private, in a hesitant voice, in a room over a church hall in Brighton. 

It was first given in public in 1997 in a lecture theatre hidden in the bowels of the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel. There, I remember the sight and sound of people in the audience crying quietly. I remember my father coming to see the piece, and not speaking to me, just touching me gently on the shoulder. I remember a passage where I spoke in character as Mary Magdalen, naked except for underpants beneath a backless surgical gown, feeling freer and fiercer and more queer than I ever have (on stage) in my life. 

In late May of 1998 I performed the piece for the last time, this time in Southwark Cathedral, accompanied by an orchestra and a choir and sixty schoolchildren and an audience that filled the nave and both transepts. I wore my best suit and carried a prayerbook. As I spoke the last words (stolen from John Donne), I lifted my face up into the great golden vault of the crossing, and then down to look at the three nine-year-old boys who were sitting at my feet, and I felt astonished at what we had done, and done in those particular spaces. 

There were several moments over those three years of work which were genuinely extraordinary, of real worth; I would like to thank Artangel for their part in bringing together the extraordinary teams of artists, technicians and producers who made them happen. And for never asking me why I was doing what I was doing.

Neil Bartlett, 2002

Michael Morris on The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin

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We looked at a number of sites to do with birth and death. We began by trying to stage it in a mortuary… – Michael Morris

Michael Morris reflecting on The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin in 2002

The founding sacraments of the Christian church looked at from both ends of the telescope. The first piece – The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin – was close up and personal, performed with great tenderness by Neil Bartlett with the artist Robin Whitmore as a live scribe. The piece was based on the seven Poussin paintings of the sacraments and Neil’s relationship to those. We looked at a number of sites to do with birth and death. We began by trying to stage it in a mortuary…

Eventually we found a featureless lecture theatre in the bowels of the Royal London Hospital. The audience had to walk through the long corridors of a working hospital, dodging stretchers with people being wheeled in and out of rooms we couldn’t see. The Poussin paintings were mostly revealed as details projected on a screen (already there), coincidentally of the same proportion as the seven canvases that hang in the National Gallery of Scotland.

At the end of the monologue the audience was led into another room containing a solitary hospital bed; curtains drawn, the pillow dented by the imprint of a head. You sat there for as long as you wanted, contemplating that final image: Extreme Unction, Poussin’s depiction of which remained propped up like a get well card on the bedside table.

The other end of the telescope came a year later in a greatly expanded work simply entitled Seven Sacraments, each of seven moments in time now forming the basis of a large scale oratorio, rather than a private meditation. An orchestra, several choirs and a group of dancers performed Nicolas Bloomfield’s ambitious score with Bartlett hosting the proceedings in Southwark Cathedral, Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire and in the upturned ark of St Barnabas in Brighton.



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Selected Press

The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin, 1997

It is the fusion of place and performance that promises to make this piece extraordinary, even in Bartlett's rich oeuvre... The performance and the audience will inhabit an institution where the joy of life and pain of death are daily occurrences. – Sean O Connor, Gay Times, July 1997

This is a curious, original and at times deeply moving show... With his vivid description and personal engagement, Bartlett makes them [Poussin's paintings] live. – Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, 4 July 1997

[H]e reminds us that anything is possible in theatre; not only that you can endlessly reinvent the form but that it is one of the places where a group of total strangers can foregather and be reminded... of their common humanity. –Michael Billington, The Guardian, 3 July 1997


Seven Sacraments, 1998 

Seven Sacraments... makes touching, wry and intriguing drama out of that awkward junction between centuries-old Christian ritual and modem scepticism. – Richard Morrison, The Times, 18 May 1998

[T]he message it conveys is not the rock-solid affirmative of Handel and co. It's the unsteady questioning of Mr Ordinary, who is none too sure whether and what he believes in these days but who... has discovered a nostalgic respect for the old forms. – Jenny Gilbert, The Independent on Sunday, 17 May 1998

His "dramatic oratorio" sees composer Nicolas Bloomfield, the East of England Orchestra, sundry local choirs and schoolchildren, and six dancers synchronise their spiritual confusion in big churches England-wide while Bartlett gently ruminates on the godless vacuum those sureties leave in their wake. – Brian Logan, Time Out, 27 May 1998

About Neil Barlett

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Neil Bartlett

In 1997, Bartlett collaborated with Artangel on a solo performance work The Seven Sacraments Of Nicolas Poussin, developed the following year into a dramatic oratorio. In 2006, he participated in an event with George Chakravati as part of the latter's Artangel project To the Man in My Dreams

Since his first novel – Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (1989) – Neil Bartlett has explored Wilde's works, life, and influence through writing, the staging of Wilde's works for theatre and radio, and In Extremis: A Love Letter (2000), an original play commissioned by National Theatre for the 100th anniversary of Wilde's death​.

Neil Bartlett works as a performer, director, translator and writer and lives in Brighton. He set up The 1982 Theatre Company and was a founding member of Gloria theatre company; he has previously worked as director for Theatre de Complicite and Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, leaving the latter in 2004 to return to independent directing creating work for Royal Shakespeare Company, The Brighton Festival and the Manchester International Festival amongst others. His novel Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall was Capital Gay’s Book of the Year in 1990 and another, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, was nominated for the Whitbread prize in 1996.

Image: Neil Bartlett performing in The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin in 1997

Associated Artists

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Nicolas Bloomfield

Nicolas Bloomfield is a composer, performer and founder member of Gloria. For Gloria he has composed the music for A Vision Of Love Revealed In Sleep, Sarrasine, Now That It's Morning, Twelfth Night, A Judgement In Stone (winner of the Time Out Drama Award), and others. He also wrote music for The Little Matchgirl and Then Again for the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, The Robbers for The Gate and It is For My Mouth Forever for QEH. He works with the Bloolips, in cabaret with Gertrude Thoma and Nicholas Mende and regularly at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He has worked with Liz Ranken, Annie Griffin, Matthew Hawkins, Jonathan Burrows and Nigel Charnockand, has written a String Quartet and numerous songs. His music for The Picture of Dorian Gray is available on Compact Disc. 

Bloomfield composed the music for the oratio version of the Seven Sacraments that was performed in 1998.

Image: (below) The score for Seven Sacraments (1998)


Rick Fisher

Rick Fisher is an award-winning American lighting designer who has been based in the UK for the last 30 years. He is known for his work on West End shows, particularly with Stephen Daldry on Billy Elliot the Musical and An Inspector Calls, as well as productions at the Royal Opera House London, New York City Opera and Santa Fe Opera. He is the chairman of the British Association of Lighting Designers.

For the 1997 performanes of The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin, Fisher projected images of the eponymous Sacraments paintings onto the performance. 

Image: (below) Fisher's projections on Bartlett during the performance, 1997

Leah Hausman

Leah Hausman is a director, choreographer and performer and a founder member of Gloria. She trained at The American Ballet Theatre School, The Martha Graham School for Dance and Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. As a director her productions include Rossini's La Cenerentola (English Touring Opera 1997/8); Berio's A Ronne (ENO Works 1997); the revival of Jonathan Miller's production of La Traviata (Minnesota Opera, ENO, 1997); Four Saints In Three Acts (Trinity College of Music, Spitalfields Festival 1996); Lady Into Fox (Gloria 1996). As a choreographer, her work for theatre includes As You Like It (Royal Shakespeare Company 1996); An Ideal Husband (Salisbury Playhouse 1995). Her choreographic work for opera includes Aida (Mid Wales Opera 1997); The Marriage of Figaro (English Touring Opera 1997), Ariadne, Jenufa (ENO), and a production of Il turco in Italia at the Royal Opera House, London. 

Hausman choreographed the 1998 performances of the Seven Sacraments. 

Image: (below) Leah Hausman


Robin Whitmore

Robin Whitmore is a visual artist, who has designed many shows for theatre and continues to make collaborative work with different London communities. He worked first with Neil Bartlett to create the show Dressing Up in 1983, and later A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (1988).

As part of the first presentation of The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, Whitmore was on stage with Bartlett, live-drawing details from the projected images of Poussin's Sacrament paintings onto a blackboard. He later made a new series of prints from these drawings, which were published in a book accompanying the text used in the performance. 

Image: (left) Whitmore live drawing during a 1997 performance



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Who made this possible?


The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin and Seven Sacraments were produced in association with GLORIA. Seven Sacraments was staged in partnership with Brighton Festival and Nottinghamshire Stages. 

Artangel is generously supported by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.