'The detail is astonishing, from the expressions on people’s faces to the glimpse of a train being sucked into the red abyss. Magnificent.'
Kate Mosse chooses The Last Judgement by John Martin
‘Inspired by the Book of Revelations – and Martin’s own profound Christian faith – the painting seems at first to shimmer with power and glory and salvation. The eye is drawn to the thrones and dominions, the gold of the trumpets and the blurring of Heaven and Earth. White wings and white skies.
‘But nothing is what it seems. Quickly, our gaze slips down to the dark green hills and grey rock, then down lower still to humankind divided: the redeemed and the damned. The detail is astonishing, from the expressions on people’s faces to the glimpse of a train being sucked into the red abyss. Magnificent.’
Kate Mosse is a novelist, playwright and founder director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her latest novel, The Burning Chambers, is out now
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Kate Mosse’s choice, the centrepiece of the triptych, completes our coverage of John Martin’s final project on this page – its supporting pictures, The Great Day of his Wrath and The Plains of Heaven, were chosen, respectively, by Peter York and the former Bishop of London Richard Chartres.
In the 1853 pamphlet accompanying its display, the triptych was described as ‘Heaven and Earth are passing away, and all things are made new’. The Last Judgement, his ‘most ambitious composition’ (William Feaver, The Art of John Martin), was the first of the three paintings to be completed.
The triptych went on a British tour from 1853 to 1855, when it was seen by two million paying visitors. A descriptive key in the pamphlet allowed it to be ‘profitably studied for hours’.
In The Last Judgement, Christ enthroned is accompanied by angels. Mankind is below, with a mighty chasm dividing the saved from the damned. Among the saved, as Martin wrote: ‘The high-caste Indian clasps the low-caste African, the Chinese, the European, the American, holy martyrs, the high and low – the greatest and meanest – of every age, country and station.’
Thirty-four individuals are honoured with portraits, among them Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rubens, Dürer and his contemporary, the painter David Wilkie.
Martin had personal cataclysmic experience; the threat of bankruptcy and ruin a few years before were enough to make his wife fear ‘he would go out of his mind’. The Last Judgement has had a similarly topsy-turvy history. Having toured Britain, America and even Australia at the height of its celebrity, in 1946, it was discovered ‘in a private house… cut into four parts and mounted as a screen’.
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