The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

John Mcewen com­ments on The Great Day of His Wrath

Country Life Every Week - - OPINION -

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

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