Illustrated companion

John Martin's 'Judgment Pictures' form a triptych. They were inspired by St John the Divine's fantastic account of the Last Judgment given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament.

The Last Judgment, as described by St John the Divine, begins with the opening of the Book of Judgment which is sealed with seven seals. As each seal is broken bizarre events occur, culminating at the breaking of the sixth seal with 'the great day of his wrath'. Martin's picture follows the account of this quite closely: '... and, lo, there was a great earthquake and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair and the moon became as blood. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.' The composition echoes the image of the two ends of a scroll rolling up together and the mass of rocks being hurled up into the air on the right can, on close examination, be seen to consist of an entire city.

The painting of the Last Judgment itself is based on Chapter XX of Revelation. On the right the forces of evil commanded by Satan and led in the field by the evil princes Gog and Magog, attack the Holy City, Jerusalem, and are defeated: '... and fire came down from God out of Heaven and devoured them'. Martin has shown the 'fire' as bolts of lightning. Then: 'I saw a great white throne and him that sat on it ... And I saw the dead small and great stand before God ... and they were judged every man according to their works'. Martin's composition separates the good and evil by a great chasm, into which the evil are falling. On the other side are the good, who are already in 'the plains of heaven' - the landscape in which they are assembled continues into the companion picture [Tate Gallery T01928], just as the scene of destruction on the right carries over from 'The Great Day of His Wrath' [Tate Gallery N05613]. In the background is the Holy City, Jerusalem, one of the architectural fantasies for which Martin was famous. It is interesting to note that among the evil people in the right foreground are a bishop and a king and that among the good people Martin has included a high proportion of artists and poets! Many of these figures were identified by Martin in a chart published to go with the pictures.

'And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from god out of heaven ... Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious'. This luminous city can just be seen in the sky above the dream-like landscape that is Martin's vision of heaven.

These paintings became famous in the years after Martin's death and were exhibited all over England billed as 'The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world valued at 8000 guineas'. However, by 1935 Martin had been almost forgotten and the triptych was sold for seven pounds and dispersed. It was eventually reunited in the Tate Gallery in 1974.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.76