Text by Geoffrey Smith
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John Martin never lets you down, you always get your money’s worth — huge canvases stuffed full of all manner of pyrotechnic effects, supernatural intervention, storms and huge architectural inventions (usually in the process of being destroyed). Romanticism by the yard. Martin really hams it up, but that is his appeal. His vision of nature casts man as a grain of sand in a huge, and sometimes terrifying, universe, reminding us, even in our complacent age, that latent natural forces are capable of unleashing a personal or collective Armageddon at any time.
The Great Day of his Wrath forms one element of the Judgement Pictures, a triptych comprising the Plains of Heaven to the left, The Last Judgement in the centre and this picture concluding the narrative on the right. They are the last major works painted by the artist before his death, the final flourish in an extraordinary catalogue of destruction, cataclysm, awe-inspiring landscapes and natural disasters.
They are based upon the visions of the Last Judgement experienced by St John the Divine and written down as the Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. In this bizarre prophecy, the seven seals of the Book of Judgement are broken by the Lamb. The opening of each seal heralds various apparitions but the breaking of the sixth seal precipitates a truly apocalyptic earthquake:
and the sun became black … and the whole moon became as blood … And every mountain and island were moved out of their places … And the kings of the earth and the princes … say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of their wrath is come.
Martin has endeavoured to visualise this passage in concrete terms — a pretty tall order. But he has succeeded triumphantly. The rocks and mountains do indeed tumble in to crush the wretched souls beneath and it is with horror that one notices that the huge mountain being hurled upwards from the right is encrusted with a large city which is about to disappear into the bottomless chasm in the centre of the composition. All is lit by volcanic fire and bolts of white lightning; surely this is as close as one would like to get to the end of the world.
The contemporary response to Martin’s pictures was sensational. He often hired halls to exhibit his works and the public flocked to see them. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to see a parallel between his paintings and today’s action packed popular American films; Martin was the ‘special effects’ master of his day.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1852 William Holman Hunt: The Hireling Shepherd, Manchester City Art Gallery
1853 Franz Xavier Winterhalter: Portrait of the Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Maids of Honour, Compiégne, Musée national du château de Compiégne