John Martin
The Plains of Heaven 1851–3

Artwork details

John Martin 1789–1854
The Plains of Heaven
Date 1851–3
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 1988 x 3067 mm
frame: 2415 x 3485 x 175 mm
Acquisition Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1840


This is the second picture in Martin's great triptych, known as the Judgement Series. Along with the other two vast panels, The Last Judgement and The Great Day of His Wrath (both Tate, T01927 and N05613), it was inspired by St John the Divine's fantastic account of the Last Judgement given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Martin's aim in producing this series was typically Romantic: to express the sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God's will.

Of the three panels, this is Martin's most serene vision. In the central panel, The Last Judgement, he separates good and evil by a great chasm, into which the evil are falling. On the far side are the good, assembling in 'the plains of heaven'. The landscape in which they have gathered continues into this picture, creating a vision of natural harmony. Martin included a number of poets and artists among the good, who are gathered like white clouds on the crest of the hill in the foreground of the picture. Behind them stretches the deep blue expanse of a heavenly alpine lake, filled by the rushing water of the distant falls, and surrounded by majestic mountain scenery.

Martin has recreated the paradise referred to in Chapter 21 of Revelation: '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, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband' (Revelation 21:1-2). 'And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal' (Revelation 21:10-11). The luminous city of Jerusalem is just visible in the background of the picture, floating in the dream-like atmosphere of the heavenly landscape.

The three pictures in the triptych became famous in the years after Martin's death and were toured all over England and America. They were described as 'The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world valued at 8000 guineas' (quoted in Wilson, p.76). Many mezzotints of the pictures were sold, but the vastness and theatricality of Martin's visions now appeared outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and the paintings themselves failed to find a buyer. By the twentieth century, Martin's work had fallen into obscurity and he became known as 'Mad Martin'. In 1935 the triptych was sold for seven pounds and the separate panels dispersed. It was later reunited in the Tate collection in 1974.

Further reading:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery - an illustrated companion, London 1990, p.76.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.19-20.

Frances Fowle
December 2000