Gallery 4 – Faith and Doubt.

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Of the paintings representing orthodox faith mentioned in chapter 12 of the main essay, those of John Martin deserve special mention, particularly his trio of huge canvases, “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1852), “The Last Judgement”(1853) and “The Plains of Heaven” (1853). (Figs.1-3)

The first (Fig.1) depicts the End of the World, and is based on the latter half of chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation., with its great earthquake, when every mountain will be moved out of its place, and the rocks will fall in upon the wicked inhabitants of the Earth. The title of the painting is based on Rev.6.17. As for its fiery imagery, this was inspired by a trip Martin made through the Black Country, with the red blaze of its furnaces and their liquid fire. In fact, it is relevant here to mention Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting “Coalbrookdale by Night” (1801), which features in Gallery 6 (Fig.2).

De Loutherbourg was an occultist, alchemist, Swedenborgian Theosophist and quack doctor, who painted two noteworthy apocalyptic pictures based on the Book of Revelation, “The Angel binding Satan” (1792) and “The Vision of the White Horse” (1798). Given this, and his leaning towards man-made disaster or horror (he painted “The Great Fire of London in 1666” in 1797) it is entirely likely that his “Coalbrookdale by Night” has apocalyptic connotations – the Industrial Revolution as a form of Hell. Another of de Loutherbourg’s paintings can be found in Gallery 5A (Fig.20).

But getting back to John Martin, “The Last Judgement” (Fig.2) depicts God and his Angels coming to deliver Judgement on an expectant humanity. The Plain of Heaven is above, the Pit of Hell below; the righteous are to the left, the damned to the right. The painting is loosely based on chapter 20 of The Book of Revelation, verses 11 to 15, the “great white throne, and him that sat on it” (verse 11) being in the centre of the painting.

“The Plains of Heaven” (Fig.3) is based on chapter 21 of The Book of Revelation, where the old order of things has been wiped out, replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth” (verse 1), and “he that sat upon the throne” (verse 5) promises a new order.

Though Martin was a devout Christian, he was not, apparently, the bible-thumping hell-fire-and-damnation literalist that his paintings might suggest. Rather it was the scenic grandeur offered by these subjects (probably aided by memories of his mother’s evangelical sermons) which gave rise to the paintings – much as he had produced, in the 1820s, a painting of “The Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii”.

As might be expected, Martin painted a picture of “The Deluge” – in fact, he painted two, one in 1826 (now apparently lost, though an 1828 mezzotint of it survives (Fig.4)) and a second in 1834 (Fig.5), but dramatic as these are, an even more dramatic painting with the same title was produced by Francis Danby between 1837 and 1840 (Fig.7). Like Martin’s, this is a massive canvas which has a great visual impact on the viewer. Indeed, for Thackeray it was the painting of The Deluge. Oddly enough, Danby’s painting may well have been produced to out-do Martin, for Danby accused Martin of getting the inspiration for his earlier painting of “The Deluge” from a painting entitled “An Attempt to illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal” (Fig.8) which he (Danby) had been working on for some time before its exhibition in 1826, and which Martin presumably saw while it was work in progress.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s Flood was a source of inspiration for many artists, for its pietistic as well as its dramatic subject matter. In the nineteenth century, as we saw in chapter 10 of the main essay and in its note 52, the Deluge became one of the many issues between Faith and Doubt. But whether for reasons of faith, doubt, or simply dramatic effect, J.M.W.Turner produced his painting entitled “The Deluge” in about 1805 (Fig.9), following it up in 1843 with two paired (more impressionistic) paintings entitled “The Evening of the Deluge” and “The Morning after the Deluge” (not illustrated here.) Incidentally, in 1840 John Martin also produced paintings of “The Eve of the Deluge” (Fig.6) and “The Assuaging of the Waters” (not illustrated here.) In the former he painted a comet hanging ominously in the sky, with the setting Sun and the New Moon nearby. This painting apparently fascinated the French scientist Baron Cuvier, as he had a theory that the Deluge had occurred when the Sun, Moon and a great comet were in conjunction. The painting also anticipates the modern Creationist theory that Noah’s Flood was a tsunami caused by a cometary impact!

Again, Gustave Doré produced dramatic engravings on the theme for his hugely popular illustrated Bible of 1866, notably “The Deluge” (Fig.10) and “The Dove sent forth from the Ark” (Fig.11)

Incidentally, it is not true that John Martin ended his life insane. It was his brother Jonathan who did that. After famously setting fire to York Minster in 1829, Jonathan was committed to an asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. Having two brothers named John and Jonathan has, not unsurprisingly, led to the confusion.

Before leaving these epic and apocalyptic pictures, we should also mention Samuel Coleman’s curious painting, now known as “The Edge of Doom”, which was completed in 1838 (Fig.12). This title – which is probably not the original one - is said to have come from line 12 of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, but though there seems to be no direct evidence for this, it is nevertheless a fact that the figure in the centre foreground of the picture is the memorial statue of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey, the pedestal of which bears some apocalyptic lines from The Tempest (4.1.152-6). The message seems to be that Shakespeare is immortal, even though the world itself might end, this message being more clearly indicated by what may well have been the original title for the painting: “The Crack of Doom – the End of All Things and the Immortality of Shakespeare”. The present title seems to be an abbreviated and slightly garbled form of this which, via Sonnet 116, still links up with Shakespeare quite successfully!

One of the best known paintings representing Victorian religious doubts is that by Henry Bowler, entitled “The Doubt: Can these dry bones live?” (1855) (Fig.13). Bowler is sometimes reckoned among the Pre-Raphaelites, though apparently he had no personal contact with any of the key members of the movement. His painting shows a young woman leaning on a gravestone and meditating on the bones that have risen to the surface of the grave-soil. The tombstone is that of John Faithful, and bears the inscription “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11.25). (The neighboring grave, flush with the ground at the base of the tree, likewise bears the word “Resurgam”, meaning “I will rise again.”) A butterfly rests on the skull, symbolic of the Soul and its Resurrection, and yet the title of the painting suggests that what is going through the young woman’s mind is Doubt: can these pitiful remnants really rise again, as scripture promises? The title of the work, incidentally, comes from Ezekiel 37.1-14. Perhaps not surprisingly, given its subject matter, the painting was never sold, and it was eventually given to the Tate Gallery by Bowler’s family in 1921.

Another painting which seems to encapsulate Victorian Doubt, whether intentionally or not, is William Dyce’s “Pegwell Bay” (1858-60). It may be merely what its subtitle tells us: “A Recollection of October 5th, 1858”- a painting of a family day out – but with its fossiliferous cliffs in the background and its comet hanging in the sky, it is easy to imagine hints at the geological and astronomical realities that were eating away at Victorian faith in the literalness of the Book of Genesis, particularly since Dyce had a keen interest in both geology and astronomy. (Two copies of the painting, Fig.14 and Fig.15, are shown in the Gallery as the comet – actually Donati’s Comet – is easily missed unless the painting is darkened.) Dyce also produced a curious painting entitled “Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting” (1860) (Fig.16). The women are in traditional Welsh dress. The one on the right is young and pretty, the one on the left is old and wrinkled, and the two are set in a desolate rocky landscape whose geological timescale dwarfs the ages of both. It is a strange painting.

Also of interest is G.F.Watts’s painting “Evolution”(1898-1904) (Fig.17), which represents, according to Watts himself, “Earth and her troublesome children”. Earth peers into the distance, neglectful of her squabbling children. The painting can be read on two levels: one is that Nature is a constant, often savage battle, “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson had it; the other is on a sociological level, the squabbling children being representative of mankind, with their constant conflicts, be they family disputes, persecutions or war itself. Either way, the world seems somehow inconsistent with the creation of a perfect God of Love. [This image is taken from the web-site of the Watts Gallery, at]

As a cautionary note to the above, we should add that one should be careful in interpreting the religious views of an artist from his or her paintings. This is well illustrated by the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Rossetti, for whom the Bible was merely a source of interesting themes, on a par with the works of Dante or the Arthurian Legends. His “Girlhood of the Virgin Mary” (1848-9) and “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (1849-50), for example, in no way indicate Catholic leanings. (Indeed, Rossetti changed the title of the latter painting to “The Annunciation” because the original Latin title led to accusations of Catholicism.) Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” (1853-4), on the other hand, did mark a religious experience, and his later paintings like “The Shadow of Death” (1870-2) do indicate Christian faith. But here we are not so much concerned with the beliefs of the artists as with the beliefs of the members of the public that flocked to see the paintings when they were exhibited, and what the paintings might have meant to them.

Useful books:

A good overview of paintings relevant to faith and doubt can be found in Jeremy Paxman’s book The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age (2009), chapter 5. For more details of individual artists, see Christopher Johnstone, John Martin (1974), particularly p.26-27 for The Last Judgement series and p.74-5 for the Deluge series. For more detail on Martin’s extraordinary paintings, including his conflict with Danby, see William Feaver, The Art of John Martin (1975), p.89-94 & 160-4 for The Deluge series, and p.188-200 for the Last Judgement series; also Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789-1854: his Life and Works (1947), p.88-91 for The Deluge series, and p.233-6 for the Last Judgement series. The most recent publication on Martin is that published in association with the exhibition of his works at Tate Britain from 21st Sept 2011 to 15th Jan 2012, John Martin Apocalypse, edited by Martin Myrone, with contributions by Anna Austen, David Bindman, Michael J. Campbell, Lars Kokkenhan, Sarah Maisey & Julie Milne (2011). For Danby, see Francis Greenacre, Francis Danby 1793-1861 (1988), particularly p.26-8 for Danby’s conflict with Martin, and the commentary on the paintings “The Sixth Seal” (p.99-100) and “The Deluge” (p.113-4). Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime (1986) is useful for its chapters on Martin, Danby, Coleman and de Loutherbourg. For Dyce, see Marcia Pointon, William Dyce, 1806-1864 – A Critical Biography (1979), particularly p.171-174. There is little published information on Henry Bowler, whose minor fame rests almost solely on “The Doubt” He has a short entry in Christopher Wood’s Victorian Painters (1995), vol.1, p.63 and there is a brief write-up about him and the painting on the Tate web-site, but a good account can be found in Paxman’s book. For Watts’s painting see Veronica Franklin Gould, The Vision of G.F.Watts (2004), p.86. Information about the paintings of Rossetti and Holman Hunt is readily found in books about the Pre-Raphaelites, but also useful is Éva Péteri, Victorian Approaches to Religion as Reflected in the Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (2003).