Prayers, money and hope needed – to save an important painting, with a rare insight to the solemnity of death, and the power of the Christian hope.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) was one of the great painters of the seventeenth century. He painted two series of the Seven Sacraments, placing the Counter-Reformation understanding back into the first century, in an essentially classical world. Rather formal and theatrical for a modern taste, they are forceful proclamations of the power of the sacraments.

Astonishingly, both series were acquired by English nobility and brought back to Britain. The second series can be viewed in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. The first series had a more chequered career. One got burnt; two have been bought by American galleries; now this one is being sold, with ‘the nation’ having first refusal.

If £3.9m can be found (it is valued at £14m) by mid-November, then it will be kept at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. I rather think it is the most important of the series. Extreme Unction. It presents a solemn rite and sacrament, little known by Protestants and non-believers, in a striking and confident manner. The man who is dying is quite young. His mother, deep in shadow, supports his head; his wife weeps at his feet; his daughter prays silently; a doctor passes back a vial of medicine, now no longer needed.

It is a large room and the man’s death is almost public. All, even the servant girl rushing out to fulfil an order, are concentrating on the sacramental action of the elderly priest. If there is one action that expresses the awesome finality of the moment, it is Poussin’s decision to depict the moment of anointing, not the forehead, but the eyes, now closed.

If you can help, send your money, but do show an interest.

Anthony Saville