John Martin: Apocalypse

I  took a trip to the end of the world the other day, to see John Martin’s Apocalypse at the Tate Britain. It is an impressive chronology of the the 19th century sensationalist painter’s most epic works. Martin, and his sublime depictions of fantastical myths and legends toured the English speaking world and had been seen by over 2m people by the time of his death in 1854. Exhibited were the extraordinary tales of men watching the last of the sun burn out in a vibrant red hue, the fires of Vesuvius engulfing Pompeii, the decadence of Babylon falling as well as countless visualisations from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 

The exhibition has been curated so as you have been passed through The Book of Revelations and then Exodus, you reach The Last Judgement triptych, adorned by frames of egregious brass and swathed in erubescent light they sit in triplicate and ownership of the last gallery space.

The triptych, comprised of the The Last Judgement, The Plains of Heaven and The Day of His Great Wrath is an effulgence of varied of emotion. In stasis, they tell a rich tale of The Last Judgement inspired by St John the Divine’s account in Revelation. They express the “sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God’s will”

and, 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. (Revelation 6:12-14)

However, what was most interesting was exactly how they told that tale and how culture over the years had created stories around it. They are staged upon grand scenes in a way that asks for enquiry, but essentially represent a fragment or screenshot that is part of something wider, something with a history and with a future. So, people starting placing the works at the centre of storytelling sessions, weaving in and out of past and present and referring back to different elements within Art to frame and guide.

The Tate took this heritage and moved it on, forward into our Digital age, and used projection mapping techniques to overlay a replica image onto the paintings and then various effects to highlight and animate different components and aid in fragment, a booming apocalyptic voice over that spoke of our impending doom. Whilst perhaps detracting from the finer technical points of the art works (like the fact that it is a painting), it felt like a camp fire experience, with the paintings at the centre, but with technology to enhance and not detract. It is no wonder they inspired the likes of Star Wars, a lot of Ray Harryhausen’s work and Alan Moore’s falling society.

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