Today, the twelfth of December, marks the 13th anniversary of this Web project. Every year, on the site's de facto birthday, we indulge in a vaguely eccentric post. Sometimes these anniversary threads preview the forum's main line of inquiry for the upcoming year, other times they describe the state of aesthetic restoration, and on still other occasions they allow us to venture into off-topic territory.
This year's anniversary post falls into the latter category.* * *
One of the most effective ways to outline a concept is to contrast it with its antithesis. For this reason, in order to define the aesthetic principle of the Beautiful, we often set it against its philosophical complement, the Sublime.* * *
We first discussed the distinction between these two aesthetic modes in a post from 2003, and revisited the topic most recently a thread early in 2010.
Last year, when we fielded a separate Web log that was entirely focussed on the Sublime (as a complement to the Judgment of Paris, which discusses the Beautiful), we similarly outlined a Sublime/Beautiful opposition in one of the log's key entries.
Never before, however, in all the years that we have been writing on aesthetics, has there been so remarkable an opportunity to experience both the Sublime and the Beautiful brought to life before one's very eyes as presented itself three weeks ago in England.
For, amazing as it may seem, there was a second reason to fly to London in November that was every bit as compelling as the opportunity to witness gorgeous plus-size model Sophie Sheppard walking the runway for Curves in Couture.
While seeing Miss Sheppard in the flesh may have been the supreme real-life encounter with the Beautiful that one could ever experience in this mortal life, London serendipitously offered a concurrent opportunity to contemplate the greatest depictions of the Sublime that have ever been created by the hand of man.
On Thursday, November 17th, we gazed upon Sophie Sheppard and saw Beauty in its purest form.
Then, on Friday, November 18th, just one day later, we viewed the finest paintings of the Romantic artist John Martin--all gathered together in one, unprecedented exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London--and beheld the foremost expressions of the Sublime that have ever been immortalized in visual art.
A compelling argument could be made in favour of Caspar David Friedrich--renowned for his moody, iconic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog--as the preeminent painter of the Romantic era. However, having now viewed John Martin's masterpieces with our own eyes, and having compared the two, we must affirm that it is Martin who must be regarded as the supreme visual artist of Romantic movement, just as Byron must ultimately be ranked above Goethe as the greatest of Romantic writers. For if there has ever been a painter whose work epitomizes the aesthetic of the Sublime, it is John Martin.* * *
For most of Western history, prior to the advent of Romanticism, Beauty was the dominant aesthetic of art and culture. For the Romantics, though, the Sublime became the prevailing mode. The Sublime is not the opposite of Beauty, however, but its correlation, just as Man is not the opposite of Woman, but the complement.
Whereas Beauty generates feelings of pleasure, and ugliness (its true opposite) engenders repulsion, the Sublime evokes sensations that are still agreeable, but cannot be termed pleasurable. The Sublime prompts reactions of awe and dread, evoking qualities such as terror, obscurity, power, privation, vastness, and magnificence. The Sublime both humbles the viewer and ennobles him. It is the quintessence of masculinity, much as Beauty is the quintessence of femininity.
No painter has ever understood the Sublime as well as John Martin, nor realized it so fully in his art. His canvasses are the visual equivalent of the music of Beethoven or the poetry of Milton and Byron.
Born in 1789 to a working-class Northumbrian family, Martin began his career as a ceramics painter, moved to London, and began producing canvasses of unprecedented size and scope that epitomized Romantic aesthetics. The art establishment of his day resented his wild popularity with the public (much as the literary world begrudged Byron's popular appeal), but throughout the 19th century, Martin's works were the best-known paintings in England.
Then, just as the aesthetic of Beauty was denounced in the 20th century, so was the aesthetic of the Sublime suppressed. Martin's works were by turns ignored or calumniated, as a rootless, alien cabal hijacked Western culture and began waging a war against the collective heritage of the Old World--a war that continues today.
However, just as recent years have seen the first stirrings of a restoration of the aesthetic of Beauty, so may the aesthetic of the Sublime be experiencing a resurrection alongside it. (How could it be otherwise?) The surest evidence of this cultural revival is the current exhibition of John Martin's work at the Tate Gallery in London. Titled John Martin: Apocalypse (in reference to the eschatological subjects of many of Martin's paintings), it is "the first major exhibition dedicated to Martin's work in over 30 years," and the finest collection of his art ever assembled in one space.
Fittingly, as one enters the Apocalypse exhibition rooms at the Tate, the first canvas that meets the eye is the colossal Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), from the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri. The subject is taken from a passage in the 18th-century fantasy novel The Tales of the Genii. In the storyline, a cruel sultan has abducted Sadak's wife and will only release her if Sadak obtains for him the fabled "waters of oblivion," which efface memory, but which are only found in a distant, treacherous landscape--a nightmarish, inhospitable world, which Martin has depicted with terrible power.* * *
At the time that the painting debuted, no one had ever seen its like. Measuring nearly two meters in height, it situates the figure of Sadak at eye level, so that the infernal mountains in the painting tower over the viewer and force him to confront this chaotic wasteland. (No mere Web image can convey the daunting scale of the work.) The landscape is ominous and threatening, its reddish hue giving it archetypal associations with Hell and the underworld. A rent in the clouds exposes a glimmer of moonlight, yet jagged lighting pierces through this tear in the sky, rendering even this glimpse of the night an ominous portent. Sadak himself clings precariously to a rocky outcropping, his prostrate position indicating utter physical exhaustion. Like the eponymous wanderer in the Friedrich painting noted above, Sadak has his back turned to the viewer (a distinctive Romantic motif), yet unlike Friedrich's brooding solitary, who seems to master the landscape below him, like an alienated lord of creation, Sadak is crushed and humbled by the sheer might of the chaos rising above him. Yet there is something dauntless and defiant in Sadak's heroic endeavour, all the more for the immensity of the challenge. One senses the indomitability of his will, even in the face of such implacable adversity. The landscape echoes the power of the man himself, externalizing it and putting it on view.
From the infernal pit to the upper sky (in the first of the exhibition's many brilliant pairings), the initial gallery room also contains the second early work by Martin that made his fame, The Bard (c.1817), from Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This painting illustrates the opening scene in the famous ode of the same name by the Pre-Romantic poet Thomas Gray, which begins thus:
On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe,
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre...
Perhaps the most fearsome ruler that England has ever known, King Edward I (played so effectively by Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart
) was as ruthless in asserting his dominion over the Welsh as he was in hammering the Scots. After invading Wales with an irresistible army, he put to death the nation's legendary bards. In Gray's ode, as in Martin's painting, the last of the Welsh bards stands atop a cliff overlooking the river Conway, even as Edward I and his armies march by. The Bard rains down imprecations upon his arch foe and (accurately) foretells the overthrow of Edward's line, before committing heroic suicide by plunging from the precipice into the river below.
Again, the colossal dimensions of the painting are impossible to convey in words (but be sure to click on the image to view it at a larger size). Well over two metres tall, its scale must be seen in person to be believed. Each individual soldier in Edward's army is distinctly visible, while the mountains, the castle, and the huge, concave rock, hollowed out by the river, tower above the viewer, who is compelled to look up
at the Bard, just as the soldiers in the painting must do. The difference in elevation between the king and the Bard indicates their moral disparity, with the Bard enjoying the literal and metaphorical high ground. The concave rock veritably reaches out over the river to dwarf the armies, numberless as they may be, as if it were an extension of the Bard's own will, like a huge, dark hand. Grey skies approach at the right of the painting, seemingly by the Bard's command, ominously foreshadowing Edward's destruction. (If the Bard bears a striking similarity to the figure of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's epic film The Ten Commandments,
this is not accidental, for DeMille's cinematography was heavily influenced by Martin.) The wild, chaotic landscape, the vastness of the scale, the power of the noble Bard--each quality renders this masterpiece a signature expression of the Sublime.* * *
If there was a single painting that brought Martin his first measure of renown with the wider public, it was the following work, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816), now housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Astonishingly, though, it is not on regular display, which indicates how the Sublime, like the Beautiful, still remains suppressed in modern culture.)
The painting depicts a well-known episode from the Old Testament:
Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon." And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. (Joshua 10:12-13)
In their search for Sublime themes, the Romantic mined the Greek classics, the ancient Bardic sagas of the British Isles, and especially Christian myth. The Romantic Era represented the first true aestheticization of Christianity, whereby Biblical stories were referenced for emotional effect rather than to express doctrinal religious piety. Like Gothic architecture, which blends vastness of proportion with intricacy of detail, the epic scale of the work (2.3 metres wide) is overwhelming and awe-inspiring, yet the refinement of the particulars is such that each soldier in Joshua's army is meticulously differentiated. Like a scene from the Lord of the Rings
contrasting Minas Tirith and Mordor, Joshua's city remains illuminated in blessed light, while the enemy domain, set deep in a hellish valley, an epic wasteland, is obscured in darkness, even as ominous storm-clouds prophesy its destruction. In the middle of the drama stands Joshua, perched on a rock, as if he, by sheer power (or rather--to use the conceit of the source material--the power of God), were controlling the Heavens themselves.* * *
Martin's next biblical subject became the most popular work of his career, and made him the most famous painter in England. Prints of this canvas hung in every respectable household in the nation (e.g., the Brontės had one in their own domicile). It is easy to see why. With rows of columns stretching into the distance to sheer infinity, and the colossal ruin of the Tower of Babel looming in the background, this vision of ancient Babylon depicts architecture on a scale never before conceived by the human mind, perhaps not even in dreams. In this instance, it is not via destruction that Martin achieves the effect of the Sublime, but by limitless vastness mixed with intricate detail.
The painting is titled Belshazzar's Feast (1820). The above version is housed in the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, while the even larger original (over two and a half metres wide), seen below, is tucked away in a private collection. Both versions are by Martin, and both are on display in the Tate exhibition.
As the Biblical text upon which the painting is based narrates:
Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. . . . In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace. Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. Then came in all the king's wise: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
Then was Daniel brought in . . . and said before the king, "This the writing that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians." In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. (Daniel 5:1-30)
The painting shows every detail: the fabled "writing on the wall," the thunderous sky portending doom, the abject king, the mighty prophet. Observe the snake coiling around the column at the left of the image. The original version, seen below, also features serpentine motifs adorning the king's throne, and this, like the eerie reddish light, associates the doomed Babylonian court with the infernal world.* * *
Astonishing as it may seem, for many decades in the 20th century, Martin's greatest masterpieces lay forgotten in museum basements throughout Europe. This ideologically driven, anti-Romantic neglect proved especially disastrous for one of his grandest and most Sublime works, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c.1822-26), which is owned by the Tate.
In 1928, London experienced the British equivalent of the Katrina flooding of New Orleans, a deluge so vast and unprecedented that it could have been painted by Martin himself. Among other acts of ruination, the deluge flooded the basements of the Tate, and so badly damaged The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (the painting was ripped in two, with one-quarter of the canvas being entirely torn away and eradicated), that it was considered irrevocably lost.
Not so irrevocably, as it turns out.
In the painting world's equivalent of the resurrection of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, the Tate rediscovered this ruined canvas several years ago, and, in an ambitious reclamation plan timed to coincide with the current Martin exhibition, completely restored it, even allowing the missing quarter of the canvas to be repainted from scratch.
Fortunately, not only did the gallery possess historic photographs of the masterpiece recording its original appearance, but the University of Manchester owned a copy of the work, albeit on a much smaller scale, painted by Martin himself. Thus, the canvas was able to be accurately re-created--as accurately as the Frauenkirche was rebuilt.
And what a wonder it is.
The painting depicts one of the Western world's most storied cataclysms, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year A.D. 79, which laid waste to the nearby towns. Martin's masterpiece closely follows a contemporary account of the calamity, as recorded by Pliny the Younger:
On Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. Ashes were already falling. The buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight.
I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.
Little wonder that Martin was attracted to the subject. The notion that the "whole world was dying" and that people believed there to be "no gods left" fits in with the eschatological fascinations of the Romantic era. The idea of the universe being "plunged into eternal darkness for evermore" precisely mirrors the theme of nihilistic poems such as Byron's "Darkness
Martin's canvas vividly realizes Pliny's description, with a vortex of obscurity "spreading over the earth like a flood," blotting out every trace of light but for the volcano itself, the instrument of perdition, with its infernal "smell of sulphur," as if the earth were being transformed into Hell, and the last black curtain was falling on the action of humanity, bringing existence itself to a close.* * *
Martin's scenes of earthbound Armageddon are frequently likened to depictions of the underworld, and for good reason. Just as writers in the 18th and 19th centuries believed Heaven to be the supreme realization of Beauty, so they deemed Hell to be the ultimate incarnation of Sublimity, and the figure of Milton's Satan to be the supreme personification of the Sublime. It is only fitting, then, that John Martin created a series of black-and-white illustrations to Paradise Lost, the greatest literary work in the English language, an epic poem that opens in the infernal kingdom and is largely set in Hell.
Perhaps the most famous of Martin's Paradise Lost engravings is The Bridge over Chaos (1824-26), which depicts the span that Satan has his offspring, Sin and Death, create to link earth to the underworld. The scope of Martin's vision staggers the senses--truly, this is a work on a cosmic scale. The tunnel forms a kind of inverse cathedral, an interminable nave of blackness, of proportions so vast as to be almost infinite. The obscurity of the void in which Satan anchors his bridge is truly fearsome.
To outline the basis upon which the Romantics deemed Milton's Satan to be the supreme incarnation of the Sublime falls outside the scope of this post (though Hazlitt's famous essay on the subject is worth a read). However, this illustration by Martin of Satan in Council (1831) depicts the solemn might that the fallen angel incarnated for the Romantics.
The greatest of Martin's engravings is undoubtedly Pandemonium (1831), which successfully realizes an architectural challenge that would have confounded the imagination of any other artist: the vast city of the devils that Satan builds in Hell. Surpassing in scale even the Babylon of Belshazzar's Feast, this towering edifice fearfully impresses itself on the mind though its sheer, incomprehensible enormity. Satan stands proudly on a rock, his arm upraised, veritably willing Pandemonium out of the ground, much as a conductor summons music out of an orchestra. Observe that the architecture of the city of devils, with its domes and towers, echoes the structure of Satan's throne, seen above. (Martin brilliantly gives the infernal realm a unified architectural style.) Observe too the evocative details, like the dragon sculptures that adorn the city walls and the braziers that illuminate the darkness of the underworld with a hellish light.* * *
Ah, but the one element missing in Martin's engravings is, of course, colour. One can well imagine the fiery hues that the artist intended for this vast netherworld, but such speculation is not necessary, because fortunately, Martin's own infernal colour palette is available to us. A decade after completing his illustrations for Paradise Lost, Martin returned to this subject and rendered one of the scenes from Milton's epic poem as a full-scale oil painting, in the manner of his famous apocalyptic canvasses.
The resulting work, likewise titled Pandemonium (1841), is now in the collection of the Louvre. The Tate exhibition brilliantly sets the black-and-white engraving of the same subject alongside it, both for the purposes of architectural comparison and to allow this painting to suggest its colour scheme for all of Martin's Paradise Lost engravings.
The architecture of the black-and-white image is, if anything, even more colossal, and the figure of Satan more overtly demonic, whereas this rendition of the fearsome monarch of Hell shows him in a more classical guise. Nevertheless, the painting awes the senses with its menacing, smithy-like colour scheme, a world of heavy blacks illuminated solely by the fires of flowing lava and by torches situated alongside the molten river of Hell. These torches--as one discovers when one views the canvas full-size and in person, at the Tate--are shaped in serpentine forms, with flames issuing from their gaping maws. The edifices of Pandemonium itself have a stark elegance, a monolithic opulence, yet the embankment by the lava river exhibits a worn quality, either showing that the fiery heat is dissolving these igneous rocks, or suggesting that the embankment valuts were deliberately fashioned in this eroded-looking manner. (In either case, with these forms, Martin anticipates the organic-seeming architecture of Gaudi by nearly a century.) The rocky strata around Satan cracks open and issue new magma, as if his very presence shatters the ground and draws out the hottest matter from the earth's core. When one views the painting in person, one also sees that the entire plain of Hell leading toward Pandemonium is peopled with countless multitudes of demons, their very number dwarfing the imagination.
As if the painting itself weren't fearsome enough, Martin even designed a special frame for his malefic creation, perhaps the only Sublime frame ever fashioned by the hand of man. As this image imperfectly depicts (for it fails to capture the sheer size of this artwork, and therefore the colossal scale of the figures), the frame is adorned with dragons at every corner and a Medusa-like conglomeration of serpents at its base. One might well say that the frame itself is evil, in keeping with the terrifying subject matter that it encompasses.
What is known to very few art lovers, even to scholars of Romanticism, is that the renowned Pandemonium has a sister work, a painting that Martin created in the same year (1841), in the exact same dimensions, and intended to be a complement to his depiction of the infernal kingdom. This canvas, as one can immediately see, does not embody the aesthetic of the Sublime, but rather, the aesthetic of the Beautiful. Titled The Celestial City and the Rivers of Bliss, it fittingly offers a depiction of Heaven, just as Pandemonium illustrates Hell.* * *
Ironically, we ourselves have previously invoked this work as a perfect example of Beauty, just as we have also, separately, referenced Pandemonium as an emblematic study of the Sublime. Little did we know, when doing so, that both of these masterpieces were explicitly and intentionally designed by their creator to be complementary depictions of the Sublime and the Beautiful.
Alas, The Celestial City and the Rivers of Bliss no longer possesses its original frame, but is encompassed by a conventional border. Surely Martin fashioned angelic figurines to adorn its frame, just as he crafted serpents and demons for the frame of Pandemonium. Nevertheless, the canvas presents an idyllic, paradisaical complement to its fearsome and awe-inspiring peer, depicting, in quintessentially feminine colours such as pinks and other pastel hues, an Arcadian dreamscape of the gentlest, softest, sweetest, most harmonious Beauty.
How wonderful that the Tate exhibition has reunited this pair of canvassess, which were intended by the artist to juxtapose the Sublime with the Beautiful, Hell with Heaven, the Masculine with the Feminine. But how tragic that they will be parted once again, when the exhibition ends. (The Celestial City and the Rivers of Bliss is part of a private collection.) Let us hope that someday, The Celestial City will find its way onto the open market, at which time the Louvre will purchase it and reunite it with Pandemonium, as if rejoining Venus with Vulcan. In the meantime, the Tate exhibition is the only opportunity that viewers may ever have to view these two works set alongside one another, as they were always meant to be exhibited.
We have previously mentioned that John Martin is to Romantic painting what Lord Byron is to Romantic poetry. This is not merely a judgment based on the similarity of their aesthetic taste. Just as Martin created the finest illustrations of Paradise Lost, the 17th-century work that prefigured all of European Romanticism, so did he create two paintings that captured the spirit of the greatest of all Romantic texts, the quintessential literary expression of the Romanticism Zeitgeist, the thrilling dramatic poem that features the definitive incarnation of the central literary figure of the Romantic movement, the Byronic Hero: Lord Byron's Manfred.
A Faustian necromancer--yet greater than any configuration of Faust, even Goethe's--Manfred is Milton's Satan in human form, but infused with Übermensch-like qualities that make him the literary link between Milton and Nietzsche. Racked with guilt for an unforgivable transgression in his past, the brooding Manfred rejects all offers of infernal pacts and remains indomitable to the end, defying supernatural menaces that prove far less threatening to him than his own nameless suffering of the soul.
Manfred on the Jungfrau (1837), from the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, depicts a Hamlet-like scene that finely encapsulates the spirit of the work. The towering cliffs above Manfred, and the yawning gulfs below, externalize the nature of the character, "half dust, half deity," a being with the spark of divinity entombed in mortal clay. He contemplates self-immolation, yet a nearby hunter, the archetype of the regular man, forestalls him. The colour scheme recalls the works of Caspar David Friedrich, but with Martin, the Sublime is the dominant aesthetic, and Manfred--potent figure that he is--remains dwarfed by the enormity of nature and of eternity.
Martin's second painting on the subject, Manfred and the Witch of the Alps (1837), is, unfortunately, customarily split from its associated work, and is now found in the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester. (Once again, in reuniting these Manfred illustrations, the Tate exhibit couples two works that were meant to be paired with one another. Thus, only for the duration of this exhibition can viewers experience these canvasses in their intentionally related state.)* * *
As the Jungfrau painting shows Manfred physically at the summit of the world, yet psychologically experiencing the depths of despair and impelled to plunge, so this work finds him at the nethermost physical point, with the rocky cliffs looming over him, yet aspiring to power above that of mortal men. Manfred remains undaunted and successfully conjures supernatural forces, leading to a profound monologue on his alienated spirit, an isolation with which the Romantics closely identified and to which no one gave better expression than Byron.
Intriguingly, Martin has added an original visual element to which Byron's text does not allude: a ghostlike impression of Manfred just to the right of his physical self, as if it were an externalization of his Promethean spirit, the superhuman spark of power by which he is able to master the forces of the numinous world.
Most of Martin's greatest works involve depictions of scenes from literary sources and constitute profound expressions of the imagination, as we have seen above. In at least one case, however, he devoted his brush to capturing a contemporary happening, albeit in his uniquely Sublime manner. And no event could have been more appropriate for this greatest of Romantic artists to have illustrated than The Coronation of Queen Victoria (1839).
The crowning of the young, beautiful queen represented a turning point in British history, and indeed, in world culture. Politically, Victoria oversaw the greatest flourishing of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Artistically, though, the Victorian Era represented a tapering off of the Sublime potency of English Romanticism. Britain never had a Wagner, let alone a Nietzsche, to carry Romanticism to the next level. It is fitting, then, that the artistic careers of both Martin and Byron ended more or less at the same time that the Victorian Era began.
Martin's painting of the coronation scene is suitably grand and imposing, with the pillars of Westminster Abbey towering above the English nobility much as the rocky cliffs loom over Byron's hero in Manfred and the Witch of the Alps.
The painting depicts a real-life incident that epitomized Queen Victoria's renowned magnanimity. According to a contemporary account, when one of the elder peers at the coronation collapsed, the queen lowered herself to render him assistance. She, who was above them all, stooped to offer him aid:
In ascending the steps of the throne to render homage, an aged nobleman stumbled and fell. To the surrounding peers the forms of etiquette forbade that prompt assistance which they would otherwise have, doubtless, hastened to render: but the young and gentle Queen disregarded all forms and laws of state ceremonial; heedless that she herself was the centre of all that splendid constellation of rank, power, and Beauty, and, perhaps more than any of the the lesser stars, bound by the iron rules of coronation rites, she started from her throne and extended her hand to raise the infirm peer from the floor.
Martin depicts this act of unprecedented royal generosity with great reverence. Observe how the light streams in through the stained glass of Westminster and bathes the queen in an angelic radiance, as if betokening her divine nature and signalling the approbation of the Almighty.
A photograph of this painting from a commendable Daily Mail article about the Tate exhibition shows the unimaginable scale of the work and depicts its magnificent frame--which, like the serpent-adorned border of Pandemonium, was crafted by the artist himself. This is surely the noblest, most aristocratic frame ever created, a work of architecture in its own right, complete with pilasters that echo the columns of Westminster Abbey, as if the cathedral were emerging from the canvas and occupying three-dimensional space. The viewer in the foreground seems to be a participant in the depicted event, dwarfed by the Gothic columns of the structure just as surley those who attended the actual coronation must have been overshadowed. The frame, with its heraldic shield and crown, offers a poignant reminder that it was the existence of the aristocracy that made Sublime and Beautiful art possible. Tragically, in the 20th century, as the nobility fell from its natural role as the guiding light of the nation, the legacy of Western culture itself fell with it.* * *
However, we have not yet reached the climax of Martin's work, his supreme achievement in the Sublime.
For several years after Victoria took the crown, Martin immersed himself in a host of projects that had nothing to do with painting, such as civic engineering and public transportation. Like Goethe--or indeed, like Faust--he applied his talent to a host of different fields.
But between 1851 and 1853, Martin returned to painting with a vengeance, and created his magnum opus: a three-canvas cycle depicting Armageddon, the Last Judgment, and Paradise, all three of which are part of the Tate's permanent colleciton.
Of these three works, two are bona fide masterpieces, offering the finest contrast in the Beautiful and the Sublime that the world of art has ever known.
The first painting, The Plains of Heaven is based on a passage in Revelations:
And I saw the holy city coming down from God out of Heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)
It may be an even more lyrical depiction of the aesthetic of the Beautiful than The Celestial City and the Rivers of Bliss,
discussed above, with its tranquil blue lakes, halcyon clime, sunny sky, and a host of angels in white, In every way, it is a vision of Heaven.
How interesting, though, that the passage which inspired this work likens the holy city to "a bride adorned for her husband." Certainly the manner in which Martin has depicted the angels in the foreground, in long, white garments, makes them subconsciously resemble brides on their wedding day, in full, flowy, white dresses. This association is so clear that in 2009, (long before we identified the source text of Martin's painting,) when we wrote
about Kelsey Olson's celebrated bridal campaign for Alfred Angelo, we featured this very canvas in the post to indicate how the images of Kelsey standing in the grass, with the blue ocean stretching out behind her, made her resemble an angel "plucked from the plains of Heaven." This coincidence further indicates how Beauty is a quintessentially feminine aesthetic, much as the Sublime is an expression of archetypal masculinity, and demonstrates how today's plus-size models are the ideal physical embodiments of the aesthetic of the Beautiful.
Now, at last, we come to the terrible end, the ne plus ultra of the Sublime, the supreme achievement of eschatological Romanticism: John Martin's signature, crowning work, The Great Day of His Wrath.
No other painting in the world can match it. It is a Dies Irae more terrifying than the trumpet blasts in the Verdi Requiem. It truly depicts the end of days, with all of existence collapsing in on itself. Unlike other Martin canvasses illustrating human catastrophe, there are no lone figures on rocky outcroppings either defying the elements or summoning the annihilation. All of humanity is indiscriminately swallowed in this cataclysm. Yet it is clearly not an act of blind Fate. There is an active force consciously wreaking destruction upon existence, its agency clearly seen in the finger of lightning that races across the skies, detonating the earth, as if the planet were an explosive shell that had just been set off. The ground splits open as if to swallow up the entire contents of human civilization, like a coffin opening to suck the very dead back inside of itself. Remember the title of the painting: The Great Day of His Wrath. This is God the Revenger avenging himself upon a wicked humanity which has transgressed against His laws.
A passage from Revelations sets the stage for this apocalyptic nightmare:
Lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of Heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the Heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and 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 his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" (Revelation 6:12-17)
None. None shall stand. Every element of biblical prophecy finds its way into this Sublime horror. We see the black sky, the dropping star at the left (a disturbing sight), and even the blood-red moon, which seems to be falling to earth as well, as if it too were being cast into the fiery pits of Hell for a cosmic transgression. We see the earth itself "rolled together" like a "scroll." As in the medieval Dance of Death, no distinction is made between "kings" and "bondmen"; all alike are being reduced to ash. The human terror expressed in the passage from Revelations is unimaginable, for the victims actually wish
the mountains of rock to fall upon them. Even greater than their fear of being atomized under numberless tons of rock is their dread before the fury of the Almighty, a wrath more fearsome than death itself. Incredibly, Martin's work convincingly creates a world in which that kind of self-immolating horror is entirely conceivable.
This Sublime masterpiece is the centrepiece of the Tate exhibition, dominating the advertising for the event, its theme giving the presentation its very title: apocalypse.
The Tate has even created a gripping video to promote the exhibition, which shows a visitor literally being sucked into the terrible world of the painting,
then escaping, as if from a nightmare. It ends with a compelling view of the visitor standing alongside the canvas, which shows its enormous scale.
Click the arrow, centre-screen, to view the video:* * *
After 13 years, it is intriguing to consider what our Web site could have been, or would have been, had we followed our initial inclinations and created a domain devoted to Romanticism, rather than to plus-size beauty.
Would we then be moderating a forum where topics focussing on the Sublime were the norm, and a discussion of a plus-size angel named Sophie Sheppard in a Curves in Couture show would be a rare, off-topic venture into the Beautiful, rather than vice versa? Who can say?
Truly, though, these two aesthetic modes are inexorably intertwined. Both were suppressed in the 20th century as part of our postmodern era's ideologically driven assault on traditional Western values (aesthetic and otherwise). Both were suppressed, both were defamed, and both aesthetic traditions are only new experiencing a tentative re-emergence.
The staging of a major exhibition on John Martin at the Tate, Britain's most-visited art gallery, is as significant a marker of the aesthetic restoration as is the existence of a fashion show in which Sophie Sheppard, a plus-size model embodying every trait of timeless beauty, walks the runway. Sophie is as perfect an embodiment of the aesthetic of the Beautiful as any celestial city or heavenly plain ever conjured by a Romantic artist.
How fitting that these two events--Sophie in Curves in Couture, and John Martin: Apocalypse--should have coincided as they did, in an aesthetic congruence worthy of Martin's own pairing of Beautiful and Sublime paintings.
We earnestly entreat all readers of the Judgment of Paris to go to London before this exhibition closes and to experience John Martin: Apocalypse for themselves. It is the most thrilling and unforgettable presentation we have ever viewed in any gallery, or any museum.
If you attend only one art show in your lives, this is the one to see.
(Click images to view larger.)
- John Martin at the Tate