Frederic, Lord Leighton

And the Sea Gave Up the Dead Which Were in It

exhibited 1892

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2286 x 2286 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894
Reference
N01511

Summary

This is one of the most dramatic and powerful works, painted in the dark and solemn style of Leighton's late career. It was originally designed as one of eight roundels on the theme of the Apocalypse, intended to decorate the spandrels of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London. The scheme was initiated by Alfred Stevens (1817-75), but was abandoned when the original design was rejected as 'unsuitable for a Christian church' (quoted in Wilton & Upstone, p.260). The present, reduced, version was commissioned by Henry Tate, for his new gallery of British art.

Leighton's tondo shows the resurrection of the dead, as described in the Book of Revelation: 'And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.' (Revelation 20:13) It is a terrifying yet essentially optimistic image, meditating on the theme of spiritual salvation. The central group depicts a man, woman and child in various stages of 'awakening': 'The man is alive, his pulses are beating again, his flesh is reddening. His wife wears the greenish ghastly hue of death: his boy is breathing, but still pale and only half alive' (Edgcumbe Staley, quoted in Wilton & Upstone, p.259). All around them, the dead arise from newly-opened graves, some exposing their bodies to the light, others wrapped, mummy-like, in pale shrouds. A trail of cloud bisects the canvas and separates the lower realms of the dead from the spiritual upper realm of the living. Leighton uses colour symbolically, contrasting the grey pallor of the dead or half-living with the brilliance and renewed vigour of the risen. A debt to Delacroix (1798-1863) is clear in the fluid brushwork of the preparatory oil sketch (Leighton House Museum and Art Gallery). The finished work, on the other hand, calls to mind Eugène Delacroix's contemporary, Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and especially his Raft of the Medusa (1819 Louvre, Paris). The influence of Michelangelo is evident in both the Géricault and Leighton paintings, in their monumental scale and their preoccupation with human anatomy. More specifically, the pose of the figure in the right background of Leighton's picture and the shrouds of the resurrected are clearly inspired by Michelangelo's Entombment, which entered the National Gallery's collection in 1868, and which Leighton greatly admired.

And the Sea … was Leighton's favourite design, but met with only moderate approval. One critic commented that the picture had 'a cold - almost oppressive - dignity', but also that it displayed 'perhaps better than any other the loftiness of his thought, the high-water mark of his mental conception'(Magazine of Art, 1892, p.220).


Further reading:
Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond, Benedict Read, Frederic Leighton 1830-1896, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, pp.230-2, no.116, reproduced p.230, in colour.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.259-60, no 120, reproduced p.259, in colour.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Display caption

Dramatic in scale and execution, Leighton’s design depicting the resurrection of the dead before the Last Judgement (Book of Revelation) was originally created for the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Leighton may have used Michelangelo’s Last Judgement from the Sistine Chapel, Rome as an inspiration. Figures are shown rising out of tombs or the depths of a vast ocean. The main group are a husband, wife and child who have emerged united. Their posture and skin tones underline the stages of resurrection, from the limpness and pallor of death to the vigour and reddish hue of renewed life.

Gallery label, February 2016