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). . [A plate from Images of Crisis (1982).]

Commentary by George P. Landow

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. 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. [Centennial Review. 23 (1979): 229.]

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" (Murphy). 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


Feaver, William. The Art of John Martin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

Goldstein, Laurence. "The Impact of Pompeii on the Literary Imagination." Centennial Review. 23 (1979): 229

Landow, George P. Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology, 1750 to the Present. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982

Murphy, Alexandra R. Visions of Vesuvius. Exhibition catalogue. Boston: Museum iof Fine Arts, 1978. This catalogue provides illustrations of works depicting both the volcano itself and its destruction of the ancient cities.

Last modified 13 May 2016