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A Powerful Painting

John Martin Destruction_of_Pompeii_and_Herculaneum













A Powerful Painting

When I was travelling in London not too long ago, I visited Tate Britain and came across a very powerful painting.

This painting was by John Martin (1789-1854) in 1822  titled "The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum".  It is a very big painting, measured 161cm (64") in width by 253cm (101") in length.  As such, the loss of details when viewed over a computer screen is pretty evident.  One would easily miss out a lot of the fine details particularly in the high contrast areas. It is an absolutely heightened experience to be able to watch the real thing at close distance.

For a bigger size image, you might like to try this link at www.commons.wikimedia.org.

The scale of the scene is overwhelming.  When you look at it, it doesn't appear to you (me) as a painting, but more like a movie in itself.  In this one, it is depicting the scene when the two Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, was destroyed by the volcano eruption back in AD79.

The setting was in the night.  However, the entire scene was lit up by the bloody red hue created by the explosions of the volcano in the distance and the lava and fire that came with it.  The cityscape, at the mercy of the explosions, was quite visible in the distance as a silhouette.  People were fleeing for their lives.  Their body languages all conveyed a strong sense of shock, awe, fear, and hopelessness.  Apparently, they were trying to find refuge along the sea which unfortunately had been overcome by the running lava. It was a scene of total desperation.  Were this the end of the world?  The expression on the face of the soldier (with a shield) in the foreground had aptly summed up the fear and despair to the climax.   All the treasures of gold and silver were scattered on the ground.  They were no longer the centre of attention.

As our eyes almost come a full circle from the distant volcano explosions to the foreground, that soldier's expression inevitably leads us back to the details in the far distance once again.  We can perhaps empathize a bit more the feelings taking place at that time.

To me, it is a good reminder about our vulnerability whether we are talking about ourselves as individuals, or together as the human kind.

The story about Pompeii and Herculaneum is not a fiction but a real one.  It happened some 1900 years ago.  These two Roman cities located at the Bay of Naples in southern Italy were totally wiped out (buried some 4 to 6 metres under the ground) in a matter of 24 hours because of the volcano eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearby. Excavation and archaeology works which began some two and a half centuries ago (and are still continuing)  have provided us with a better insight into the lifestyles of people under the Roman Empire and particularly on what had transpired within the last 24 hours of their lives.

In case you might wonder why I have this much information to tell about the cities,  it was because of the information I learnt from an exhibition.  To my luck, the British Museum was running an exhibition on the "Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum" while I was there. It is still running up to September this year.

As my trip was partly motivated by artistic inspiration, I consider it a special blessing to have the opportunity of learning something from the painting and from the exhibition.  It is more so when I later found out from the research that this painting could have fallen into oblivion.  The flood in London in 1928 had caused significant damage to it.  As much as one-fifth of the canvas was affected rendering it a write-off at one time. Fortunately, a decision was made later to restore it based on an old photograph and a small version from the artist, and hence brought it back to its former glory in 2011.

Personally, this is one of my favourites amongst the works of John Martin (1789-1854).


JMartin Destruction of Pompeii -- upper middle

J Martin Destruction of Pompeii -- upper middle


JMartin Destruction of Pompeii - lower left

J Martin Destruction of Pompeii -- lower left


J Martin Destruction of Pompeii (part lower middle)

J Martin Destruction of Pompeii (part lower middle)







































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