Originally Posted by HSG
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.
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.
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.
Very interesting that Verdi should be mentioned. I agree that Martin is to painting what Beethoven is to music. However, whenever I have viewed The Great Day of His Wrath,
I have always heard in my mind the apocalyptic chords of the "Dies Irae" from the Verdi Requiem,
with the shrieking trumpets that are like unto the screams of the damned, and the drumbeats that convey the thunder of doom.
Here is Verdi's "Dies Irae" from the definitive DVD video recording
of the Verdi Requiem,
featuring the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the legendary Herbert von Karajan. The YouTube quality is middling, but the DVD itself is high-definition perfection.
Both the Verdi Requiem
and the John Martin painting depict the same event from Revelations that the original "Dies Irae" text (a Latin poem of the Middle Ages) describes, and the words of which Verdi sets to such terrifying music. It's interesting to see how the details of the hymn are reflected in Martin's canvas:
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
Oh what fear man's bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
through earth's sepulchers it ringeth;
all before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
wherein all hath been recorded:
thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
and each hidden deed arraigneth,
nothing unavenged remaineth...
Righteous Judge! for sin's pollution
grant thy gift of absolution,
ere the day of retribution.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!
While the wicked are confounded,
doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Words: Thomas of Celano, 13th cent.;
trans. William J. Irons, 1849
Scholars have often remarked that Romanticism constituted a revival of the medieval art, with the emphasis on aesthetics rather than religious piety. (Thus, for example, the Gothic cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages were closely echoed in the 19th century by Neo
-Gothic cathedrals and castles.) How fitting, then, that John Martin should have taken a quintessentially medieval subject, the Day of Wrath, and presented it in Romantic fashion, as an aesthetic event.
By contrast, in the 20th century, the Catholic church sadly (and predictably) removed the "Dies Irae" from the liturgy of the Requiem Mass, supposedly wanting to focus on something more "positive." In doing so, I think the faith lost something essential: the rich aesthetic experience provided by its own tradition in the Sublime. And of course, this watering-down of the Sublime was happening at the same time that its tradition of the Beautiful was being diminished
I think the faith made a terrible mistake in conforming to modern minimalism and the "aesthetics of guilt," because the power of the Sublime and the Beautiful has a compelling aesthetic force, and captures the imagination even of those who are not believers (just as the ending of belief in the Classical pantheon did not make the Greek gods any less compelling as subjects of art and literature).
Our culture needs a revival of the Sublime just as much as it hungers for a revival of the Beautiful. I hope this thrilling John Martin exhibit at the Tate helps to bring about such a revival.