The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin
John Mcewen comments on The Great Day of His Wrath
This is from Martin’s climactic triptych (with The Last Judgement and The Plains of Heaven) known as the ‘Judgement series’. it illustrates a scene from the last book of the New Testament, The Revelation (or The Apocalypse) by the Apostle John (or st John the Divine).
he describes the Book of Judgement sealed with seven seals. The broken sixth revealed ‘the great day of his wrath’: ‘And, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood/ …and every mountain and island were moved out of their places./and the kings… and every free man, hid themselves…/and said…/for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?’ (Revelation:6:12-17).
This hellfire sermon in pictorial terms was Martin’s most famous painting. it shows his awareness of industrialisation, of the new science of geology and a romantic attachment to the concept of the sublime: the immensity of Nature, the smallness of Man.
That he was also a theatre-set designer is no surprise. The painting was presented theatrically, the audience seated in darkness. Passages were spotlit to sound effects and a thunderous reading of the Biblical text off-stage. Martin died on its completion.
After his death, the triptych toured England and America and was reproduced as a best-selling print. Once considered unparalleled and valued at 8,000 guineas, by 1935, it was sold for £7 and split up. The Tate reunited it in 1974. in our age of cinematic special effects, Martin has regained favour as an honoured precursor.
‘I remember it from early in its reinstatement when I was in a very Victorian painting mood. I liked the Cgi-ness (as we’d call it now) of it. My parents’ generation thought this sort of stuff was “amusing”, but I thought it was terrific, like the Dalí “soft watches” that were just round the corner. I’ve gone off the Dalí, but John Martin and the Book of Revelation couldn’t be more now! ’
The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851–53, by John Martin (1789–1854), 6¼ft by 10ft, Tate Collection, London
Peter York is a management consultant, journalist, author and broadcaster. His latest book, Authenticity is a Con, was published in 2014