J ohn Martin, who specialized in cataclysmic and apocalyptic images, employs this same intellectual structure throughout his career in his many representations of biblical history.[William Feaver (see bibliography) provides valuable background information on his pictures and comparisons with his contemporaries.] Turner, of course, also painted similar embodiments of the religious sublime, such as The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800, John Herron Art Museum, Indianapolis) and The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846, Tate Gallery), but he more frequently drew his subjects of catastrophic sublimity from history, classical literature, or his own experience.

In contrast, Martin, who was extraordinarily popular in his own time, devoted most of his energies to creating images of divine punishment, though he occasionally painted secular and literary subjects as well. In The Great Day of His Wrath (1852, Tate Gallery) this master of the theatrical sublime created an image of the Last Judgment which can stand as a type of his entire career. Using his characteristic elongated horizontal format, Martin follows his usual pictorial strategy of juxtaposing many diminutive human beings to a world whose scale, depth, and energy is about to destroy them. A black chasm opens before the spectator in the immediate foreground, and into this emptiness pour the terror-stricken inhabitants of this doomed world, while down upon them cascade from the left enormous boulders. Lightning flashes across the sky and down on the ground, and this fire from the sky is matched in the right portion of the background by a sea of lava and fire. The curving sides of the hills, the swirling clouds of smoke on the right, and the central blackness all create a vortex that draws spectator and; 1829, British Museum), The Deluge (1834, formerly Charles Jerdein Col.), The Destruction of Tyre (1840, Toledo Museum of Art), and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). In all these representations of catastrophe and crisis, Martin relies upon the great disparity of scale between his personages and the world in which they find themselves to emphasize man's essential helplessness in the face of natural phenomena. Throughout Martin's work lightning, flood, avalanche, volcanic action, and earthquake destroy human beings and their guilty civilizations, and when he came to paint The Great Day of His Wrath, he employed them all, as if to provide a final summation of this situation and of his own career in depicting its various forms.

Pompeii Destroyed

The fire, lava, and earthquake in The Great Day of His Wrath remind us that Martin's visions of crisis and catastrophe, like those of so many other artists and writers of his time, received a powerful impetus from the rediscovery of Pompeii in the previous century. Writing on "The Impact of Pompeii on the Literary Imagination," Laurence Goldstein has observed that in the destruction of earlier optimism "during the Age of Revolutions which followed Gibbon . . . Pompeii played an important role, as a social phenomenon and as a metaphor." In particular,

It did so by compelling a personal identification with its victims. Because it was obliterated in the midst of life, Pompeii revealed to the modern world disturbing images of pathetic individuals stopped in recognizable domestic activities by the volcanic ash. Pompeii became a symbolic code word for what Madame de Stael calls "death's abrupt invasion." It fostered a dark literature of premature burial, natural calamity, and universal extinction. [229]

It also encouraged artists to create images of the instant, as Pablo Neruda puts it in "Cataclismo,"

que cuando
cayo el humo y el mar, la lava, el miedo
alli cayeron, enredandose en un nudo de espinas
que rodaba temblando sobre el dia
con una cola de agua hirsuta y piedras que mordian ...

[when the smoke fell, the lava, the seas, the terror
rained down, spun the knots in the shuddering thorn,
circled the days
with a hairy backlash of water and the tooth of the stone.
trans. Ben Belitt]

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by John Martin (1806-70). 1822. Oil on canvas, 1616 x 2530 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain Accession number N00793 (purchased 1869). Click on image to enlarge it.

Not surprisingly, Martin contributed a painting of Pompeii's end. His The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c. 1821, University of Manchester) follows the lead of Jacob More's Mount Vesuvius in Eruption: The Last Days of Pompeii (1780, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), which was apparently the first to join "a close, low viewpoint that exaggerates the height and bulk of the volcano with a scene of figures fleeing the crumbling city."1 Like his more famous visions of catastrophe, Martin's version of Mount Vesuvius destroying the ancient city employs an essentially oval visual field whose curves embrace and capture these victims of nature. Characteristically, the painter drops off his corners into shadow, thus creating a vortex or tunnel-shape that draws the spectator into the picture space. The incandescent cone of Vesuvius, which is shooting forth fiery ash and lava, appears in the farthest visible distance, and it is thus spatially and tonally opposed to the many small figures who people the foreground. The immediate landscape foreground and many of the costumes of the people in it have dark coloration and tone. Hence the Pompeiians fleeing their city's destruction are sharply contrasted visually to the glowing mountain, lava, and lightning that threaten them. They have assembled beside the water of the Bay of Naples, which the painter depicts reaching in from the left margin to the left middleground of the picture. Trapped between a rough sea and a fiery sky, the pathetic inhabitants of the doomed city try to defend themselves by lifting arms, cloaks, and soldier's shields to ward off the coming destruction.

Like so many other images of crisis and catastrophe, Martin's painting of the destruction of Pompeii employs a parallel intellectual and pictorial structure, for its sweeping curves and threatening masses visually embody the way natural forces surround and threaten human beings-with painful death. A slightly different version of this structure of engulfment appears in the American painter James Hamilton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1864, Brooklyn Museum). Using a vertical format to present man and his objects destroyed by natural forces, Hamilton creates an image of Pompeii that apparently draws more upon views of Rome than upon Pompeii itself. A column surmounted by a statue, presumably that of a Roman emperor, extends up through the middle of the picture among a series of colonnaded buildings set upon a hill. This silhouetted form of the statue stands contrasted sharply to the fiery, incandescent cone of the volcano, which appears at the centre of a vortex surrounding both it and the statue, an emblem of man's pretenses to power and glory. This static opposition of statue and volcano provides one of the painting's major emphases, but the spectator's greatest impression is, however, one of movement, for Hamilton uses a swirl of volcanic clouds and falling rocks to create a particularly powerful image of natural energies descending upon man and his world. Unlike Martin, Hamilton chooses a single visual emphasis to contrast helpless man and powerful nature, and the American painter also lavishes more care on creating the effect of swirling energies. None the less, both painters create images whose forms communicate a situation in which human beings are engulfed by natural forces totally beyond their control.

Bulwer-Lytton Punishes Pompeii

Volcano by William Bewick. Wood-engraving.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which was enormously popular in the nineteenth century, provides a catalogue of such structures of cataclysm and crisis. After building towards the volcano's eruption, The Last Days of Pompeii then devotes considerable space to presenting it in detail. Bulwer-Lytton follows Pliny the Younger and reports that the inhabitants of Pompeii were first surprised by "a vast vapour shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness, the branches, fire!" (bk 5, ch. 4). Suddenly, the citizens of the doomed city

Felt the earth shake beneath their feet; the walls of the theatre trembled: and, beyond, in the distance, they heard the crash of falling roofs; an instant more, and the mountain-cloud seemed to roll towards them, dark and rapid, like a torrent; at the same time it cast forth from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with vast fragments of burning stone! Over the crushing vines; over the desolate streets; over the amphitheatre itself; far and wide, with many a mighty splash in the agitated sea, — fell that awful shower! . . . Darker, and larger, and mightier, spread the cloud above them. It was a sudden and more ghastly Night rushing upon the realm of Noon! [bk 5, ch.4]

After the first stages during which the inhabitants of Pompeii see the eruption and feel the corollary earthquakes and then see the volcanic cloud advancing upon them, a third stage occurs: clouds of volcanic smoke and ash cover the scene, thus transforming Pompeii into a nightmarish phantasmagoric prison:

The cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, had now settled into a solid and impenetrable mass. It resembled less even the thickest gloom of a night in the open air than the close and blind darkness of some narrow room. But in proportion as the blackness gathered, did the lightnings around Vesuvius increase in their vivid and scorching glare. Nor was their horrible beauty confined to the usual hues of fire; no rainbow ever rivalled their varying and prodigal dyes. Now brightly blue as the most azure depth of a southern sky; now a livid and snake-like green, darting restlessly to and fro as the folds of an enormous serpent.... Sometimes the cloud appeared to break from its solid mass, and, by the lightning, to assume quaint and vast mimicries of human or monster shapes, striding across the gloom, hurtling one upon the other, and vanishing swiftly into the turbulent abyss of shade; so that, to the eyes and fancies of the affrighted wanderers, the unsubstantial vapours were as the bodily forms of gigantic foes, — the agents of terror and of death. [bk 5, ch.7]

Next, after relating the repertoire of terrifying sounds that besieged the Pompeiians — the rumbling of the earth, the groaning of the sea, and the hiss of escaping gases — the novelist tells how the city was gradually inundated by ashes and poisonous vapours, and how falling rocks either crushed all beneath them or, breaking into pieces, set fire to all that was combustible nearby. Finally, after describing how the elements of civilization disappeared in this night flight to self-preservation, Bulwer-Lytton narrates the final horror of the lava flow, which transforms Pompeii and its environment into a scene from Hell — into a scene, that is, very like that portrayed in Martin's The Great Day of If is Wrath:

Suddenly, . . . the place became lighted with an intense and lurid glow. Bright and gigantic through the darkness, which closed around it like the walls of hell, the mountain shone, — a pile of fire! Its summit seemed riven in two; or rather, above its surface there seemed to rise two monster shapes, each confronting each, as demons contending for a world. These were of one deep, blood-red hue of fire which lightened up the whole atmosphere far and wide; but below, the nether part of the mountain was still dark and shrouded, save in three places, adown which flowed, serpentine and irregular, rivers of the molten lava. Darkly red through the profound gloom of their banks, they flowed slowly on, as towards the . . . city. Over the broadest there seemed to spring a cragged and stupendous arch, from which, as from the jaws of hell, gushed the sources of the sudden Phlegethon. And through the stilled air was heard the rattling of the fragments of rock, hurling upon one another as they were borne down the fiery cataracts. [bk 5, ch. 8]

As these selected passages demonstrate, Bulwer-Lytton devoted considerable attention to communicating the experience of the inhabitants of Pompeii during that city's last terrifying hours.

None the less, although the novelist's narration of the last hours of Pompeii takes a far more detailed form than does Poe's presentation of the initial moment of crisis in "MS. Found in a Bottle," it shares essentially the same structure. Both works, in other words, present human beings suddenly assaulted by powerful forces — forces that exist on a scale far vaster than the human — that threaten to destroy them. The structure or situation in which these people find themselves, moreover, immediately separates their old, everyday existence from the new terrifying one that has just sprung into being.

Last modified 16 July 2007