Sunday, 19 July 2015

"It is like the mouth of Hell“ – John Martin, Painter of Apocalyptic Visions

19 July 1789, the English Romantic painter of apocalyptic visions John Martin was born in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland.

 “It shall make more noise than any picture ever did before... only don't tell anyone I said so." (John Martin before the first exhibition of “Belshazzar's Feast“)



Belshazzar's Feast (1820), John Martin’s most successful painting


Theopompus of Chios broke the ban put on the memory of the arsonist by the good people of Ephesus who set fire to their share of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Allegedly, he committed the crime so his name would live on and the damnatio memoriae seemed a befitting punishment, along with a death sentence, of course. But, thanks to gossipy Theopompus, the name of Herostratus, the man who torched the Temple of Artemis, became synonymous for somebody who destroys something wonderful to become famous. Whether Jonathan, unhappy 10th brother of John Martin, the famous painter of apocalyptic visions, thought of old Herostratus when he set fire to York Minster in 1829 and if it was to draw level with his illustrious sibling has not been recorded. But the good people of York cried out the fiercely blazing east arm would look like one of the apocalyptic paintings from Martin and meant that of John, of course. Many had seen John Martin’s stunning, fiery spectacles of almost megalomaniac proportions presented in theatres and music halls with the same dramatic narrative and gas-lighted illumination and pretty much the same intent as our own contemporaries watch a blockbuster movie about exactly the same sujets and with the same intentions.



John Martin - Destruction of Tyre (1840)


Sights of volcanic eruptions, deluges, burning cities or vast palaces were nothing that happened only in one’s imagination in the late 18th and early 19th century, but it took the mindscape of a Milton or a Blake and a suitably Romantically moved era and surroundings to magnify them to apocalyptic proportions. The stage for Martin’s visions was set by Benjamin West, creator of such beauties as “Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant“, “Noah sacrificing after the Deluge” and “Death on a Pale Horse“, set up as “West’s Picture Gallery” by his financially astute offspring and rivalling Music Hall entertainment along with dramatic verse epics, Gothic novels and the rediscovery of the ancient world by the emerging disciplines of archaeology and Historical sciences that all had an immense public appeal. Religious education wouldn’t do any harm either and Martin’s painted Bible spectacles were sure to draw crowds in London and beyond for decades and while artists like Gustave Doré took the baton and relayed the apocalyptic visions of the Romantic Movement towards the end of the long 19th century until movie makers from Griffith and DeMille to Spielberg, Lucas and Ridley Scott processed the imagery for the 20th and 21st century’s audiences, quoting Martin’s paintings almost literally, more often than not. And even if appreciation of Martin’s art in itself was dead once and for all when the long 19th century finally ended, its revenant proved to have a very long afterlife with no end in sight.


A vision of Spielbergian dimensions:
“The fall of Babylon; Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army“, 1831