The Story in Paintings: John Martin, more than the apocalypse

John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (1852), oil on canvas, 136.3 x 212.3 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

John Martin (1789–1854) was a contemporary and friend of JMW Turner, William Etty, Thomas Cole, and Washington Allston, and was as popular and successful as the best of them.

Working almost exclusively in the Burkean sublime, Martin made a name for himself with huge dark apocalyptic scenes, although he also painted some pleasant landscapes. I have already discussed his Belshazzar’s Feast (1820-1), but will repeat the image of it for the sake of completeness.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812)

Today, the story of Sadak (perhaps derived from Zadok) has been almost forgotten, but from its publication in James Ridley’s Tales of the Genii in 1764, it enjoyed sustained popularity. Pretending to be from a Persian original, it was orientalist fiction. Sultan Amurath sends the hero Sadak on a mission to locate the waters of Oblivion, which are claimed to destroy memory. His mission takes him through all manner of natural and supernatural challenges before Sadak reaches his goal. The Sultan tries to use the waters on Sadak’s wife to seduce her, but in the end he falls victim to them, and dies. Sadak then becomes Sultan himself.

John Martin (1789–1854), Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, Art Gallery, St. Louis, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin shows Sadak struggling up huge boulders in the foreground, as he nears the waters of his quest. The painting already has the apocalyptic appearances which became so characteristic of many of Martin’s works.

Macbeth (1820)

William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth has remained a popular play, and has frequently been used for narrative paintings. In this early scene, the three witches meet with Macbeth and Banquo on a “heath”. Macbeth, who is the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo are King Duncan of Scotland’s generals, who have just defeated the allied armies of Norway and Ireland. The witches address Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor (which he is not), and “King hereafter”. The witches are more enigmatic in their pronouncements for Banquo’s future, then they vanish.

John Martin (1789–1854), Macbeth (1820), oil on canvas, 86 x 65.1 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Three witches materialise from a swirl of mist and lightning bolts on the left, and Macbeth and Banquo appear surprised at their sudden arrival. Even on the original large canvas, their figures are too small to read facial expressions, although their body language does indicate surprise. Winding around the shores of the distant lake is the huge army, and Martin has turned the Scottish Highlands into rugged Alpine scenery of the Burkean sublime – an indication of the much greater outcome of the meeting.

Belshazzar’s Feast (1820)

John Martin (1789–1854), Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), oil on canvas, 90.2 x 130.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

See the previous article for comment and analysis.

Diogenes Throwing Away His Cup (1833)

Diogenes of Sinope (alias the Cynic) (412/404-323 BCE) was a major and controversial Greek philosopher. Despite his cynicism, he was logically very consistent by nature. One story tells of discovery of a young man drinking from his cupped hands. Seeing this, Diogenes threw his cup away, uttering the words “a child has beaten me in plainness of living.” This scene was shown by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) in his Landscape with Diogenes (1648), which was the basis for Martin’s version.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape with Diogenes (1648), oil on canvas, 160 × 221 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
John Martin (1789–1854), Diogenes Throwing Away His Cup (1833), watercolour with scratching out, heightened with touches of gum arabic, 19.5 x 26 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s fine watercolour changes the setting, using an imagined version of ancient Athens with the Parthenon dominating the distant buildings. With rolling hills, lakes, and more woodland than shown by Poussin, the slight mist exaggerates the aerial perspective. In the foreground are Diogenes and the young man, arranged fairly similarly to those in Poussin’s painting, but relatively smaller in the landscape. There are minimal cues and clues to the narrative.

The Deluge (1834)

This painting shares two points of reference: the biblical account of the flood, in Genesis, in which God punishes human wickedness by destroying all life on earth except the few people and pairs of animals which were in Noah’s Ark, and Martin’s personal belief in prior catastrophe.

As the sciences became ascendant during the nineteenth century, some educated people believed that in the past there had been an alignment of the sun, earth, and moon, and the collision of a comet, which had resulted in global flooding. This was promoted by the French natural scientist Baron Georges Cuvier, and subscribed to by Martin.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Deluge (1834), oil on canvas, 168.3 x 258.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

True to form, Martin’s painting is dark and apocalyptic: near the centre, tiny survivors are just about to be overwhelmed by an immense wave, which bears down at them from the left and above. The misaligned sun and moon barely penetrate the dense cloud, and to the top right is a melée of rock avalanche and lightning bolt. This was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1835.

Manfred and the Alpine Witch (1837)

Manfred: A Dramatic Poem was written by Lord Byron in 1816-7 following his ostracisation over alleged incest with his half-sister. Its hero, Manfred, is tortured by guilt in relation to the death of his beloved Astarte. Living in the Bernese Alps, he casts spells to summon seven spirits to help him forget and sublimate his guilt. As the spirits cannot control past events, he does not achieve his aim, and cannot even escape by suicide. In the end, he dies.

John Martin (1789–1854), Manfred and the Alpine Witch (1837), watercolour, 38.8 x 55.8 cm, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s watercolour shows Manfred conjuring a witch from a flooded cave in the mountains. Unusually light and sublime but not apocalyptic, it is perhaps one of his most beautiful works, and reminiscent of Turner’s.

The Destruction of Tyre (1840)

Tyre was the great Phoenician port on the Mediterranean coast, claimed to have been the origin of navigation and sea trade. Its importance and the generally good nature of its merchants and other citizens allowed it to be spared destruction for a long time. However the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 26) fortold that one day, many nations would come against Tyre, would put the city under siege, break her walls down, that the fabric of the city would be cast into the sea, and it would never be rebuilt.

Nebuchadnezzar put Tyre under siege in 573 BCE, and eventually Alexander the Great destroyed the city in 332 BCE.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction of Tyre (1840), oil on canvas, 83.8 x 109.5 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin brings the forces of nature in to help destroy the port, with a storm great enough to sink many vessels, leaving their prows floating like sea monsters. In the distance is his standard lightning bolt, and the city has clearly been broken down to fragments of masonry.

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (c 1840)

During his conquest of Canaan for the land of the Israelites, Joshua, their leader, brought his army to fight the Canaanites at Gibeon. To maintain daylight, and allow the battle to continue, Joshua called upon God to cause the sun and moon to stand still. This he did, and called up a storm of heavy rain and hailstones which further hampered the Canaanites. As a result of this divine intervention, Joshua led the Israelites to victory.

John Martin (1789–1854), Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (c 1840), oil on canvas, 47.9 x 108.3 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

This later version of an much earlier original (1816, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) is half the size but loses none of the awe of the first. Joshua is on a rock platform just below the centre of the painting, the armies stretching from the gates of the city at the right, all the way down into the valley at the left. The storm rages on the Canaanites in the valley below, while the clouds have parted over the Israelites to the right. It is unusual for the changing weather to play such a central role in narrative.

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (1852)

The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah has become so deeply embedded in western culture that Sodom has entered several European languages. The events are told in Genesis, which places the two among five cities on the plain just north of the Dead Sea, on the River Jordan. Because of their grievous sin, God determined that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed.

One family living (righteously) in Sodom at the time was Abraham’s nephew Lot; following negotiation, God agreed that he would spare the lives of Lot and his family, so they were visited by angels. Those angels told Lot to gather his family and leave, but not to look back. As Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed “by fire and brimstone”, Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.

A popular story for paintings, another bizarre story about Lot has become even more common in narrative painting: that of Lot’s two daughters later getting him drunk and ‘laying down with him’ to conceive children by him, normally titled Lot and his Daughters.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (1852), oil on canvas, 136.3 x 212.3 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s huge storm of fire and brimstone shows the destruction of the cities as if in the heart of a furnace from the ironworks of the day. Lot and his two daughters are seen in the right foreground, walking away and not looking back. In the middle distance, Lot’s wife is straggling behind, looking back, and is just about to the struck by a lightning bolt which will turn her into a pillar of salt. This is Martin at his most awe-inspiring.

The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3)

At the same time that he was painting The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, Martin was working on his huge final canvas in the triptych entitled The Last Judgement.

John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), oil on canvas, 196.5 x 303.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), oil on canvas, 196.5 x 303.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Here he tackles what should be a major narrative challenge: depicting the future in a painting, a medium without time or tenses. In practice, its placement in time is almost irrelevant, as it revels in the sublime and awe-inspiring, as Martin’s final vision of the apocalypse.


Martin was a very unconventional narrative painter, who by working on such grand scales was able to ignore Alberti’s laws. In doing so, the awe that his paintings inspired was cosmic in scale, but highly impersonal. His figures are so tiny as to be devoid of emotion or feelings, like ants. His subjects and themes were strong, but never that emotional or emotive. That allowed the viewer more detachment from the narrative, which was perhaps just what the Victorians wanted.



Morden BC (2010) John Martin. Apocalypse Now! McNidder & Grace. ISBN 978 1 90479 499 8.