John Martin

The Crucifixion

published 1834

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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Martin 1789–1854
Mezzotint on paper
Image: 460 × 721 mm
Purchased 1987

Catalogue entry

T04893 The Crucifixion pub.1834

Mezzotint 460 × 721 (18 1/8 × 28 3/8) on wove paper 570 × 801 (22 3/8 × 31 1/2); plate mark 543 × 772 (21 3/8 × 30 3/8)
Engraved inscriptions: ‘London, Designed and Engraved by John Martin, K.L.B. | THE CRUCIFIXION | To His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury THE President; And to the other Members of | The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge | This Plate is with Permission Dedicated By Their Most Obedient Humble Servants | John Martin & Fras. G. Moon. | Deposé a la direction | London -- Published July 1st. 1834, by Francis Graham Moon, by Special Appointment Printseller to the King, 20, Threadneedle Street, sold also by Hodgson Boys & Graves, 6 Pall Mall; Ackermann & Co. Strand | A Paris, chez Rittner & Goupil’ all below image at centre
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 24 Oct. 1985 (167) £280 bt William Weston Gallery from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Lit: Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789–1854: His Life and Works, 1947; p.282, Appendix 8a, no.13; William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford 1975, pp.134–6, 227; J. Dustin Wees with contributions by Michael J. Campbell, ‘Darkness Visible’: The Prints of John Martin, exh. cat., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts 1986, Checklist, p.80, no.91; Printmaking in Britain 1775–1965, exh. cat., William Weston Gallery 1987, no.84, repr.; Michael J. Campbell, John Martin, Visionary Printmaker, exh. cat., York City Art Gallery 1992, pp.118–19, no.91, repr. (different impression)

Martin's first treatment of the subject of the Crucifixion appeared in The Amulet: A Christian and Literary Remembrancer for 1830 in an engraving by Henry Le Keux (74 × 119, 2 7/8 × 4 11/16; opp. p.13; Feaver 1975, p.110, pl.81). Similar in composition to T04893, it shows that moment when the centurion pierces Christ's side. It illustrated a seventeen stanza poem, ‘Crucifixion’, by the Revd George Croly (pp.13–17) and was described as having been made ‘from a Drawing’ (p.xi).

Quite why Martin waited until the end of the 1820s before tackling the theme of the Crucifixion - and then only in a small-scale print rather than on a large canvas - is unknown. The fact that he was to advertise the 1834 mezzotint as ‘a companion size to Belshazzar's Feast’ (Times, 2 Feb. 1835, p.l; a reference to the 1826 mezzotint, re-engraved in 1832, after the large oil painting of 1820) suggests that he certainly viewed these two great and sublime turning points in Ancient and Modern civilisations as subjects which could appropriately hang together as pendants. However, despite the huge public success of ‘Belshazzar's Feast’ (oil on canvas, 1600 × 2490, 63 × 98, private collection) when it was first exhibited in 1821, Martin does not appear to have contemplated working on a ‘Crucifixion’ in the same medium or on the same size.

The success of the 1830 engraving - it was described by the editor of the Amulet as ‘unequalled in modern art’ (p.263) - must have encouraged Martin to finally embark on a larger reworking of the subject. This time, as a means of recreating an ‘authentic’ view of the event, he relied upon the same kind of elaborate architectural and historical detail which had made ‘Belshazzar’ such a success. This larger work seems to have been in hand by mid-1833: the evidence for this is found in comments made by the antiquarian John Britton in a lecture to the Bristol Institution on 2 October 1833 and reported in Arnold's Magazine of the Fine Arts (vol.3, no.1, Nov. 1833, p.57):

he [Britton] had lately seen [Martin], with whom he had the pleasure of being acquainted, engaged on the subject of the Crucifixion, for which purpose he had formed a ground plan of the city of Jerusalem; by conceiving himself placed on a commanding elevation, he from thence arranges his subjects according to geometrical proportions and by such means he will, no doubt, produce one of those pictures which will gratify and astonish the world.

As there is no known painting of the Crucifixion by Martin from this period of his career and as Britton's description of the artist's viewpoint coincides exactly with that in T04893, these comments could only apply to the preliminary work for the print. Just as he had done with his earlier oils of biblical subjects - ‘Belshazzar’, ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (1822), ‘The Deluge’ (1828) and ‘The Fall of Ninevah’ (1828)

Martin produced a descriptive catalogue to accompany ‘The Crucifixion’. This Description of Mr Martin's Plate of the Crucifixion is a quarto pamphlet of ten pages and is prefaced by a double page spread on which there are two outline etchings: a ‘Key’ to the print, and beneath it, a plan of Jerusalem orientated to the same viewpoint which the spectator has when looking at the Key and thus the finished print. Both the Key and the Plan have the numbers 1–46 superimposed over their outlines at particular points of interest and these numbers are then listed in order in the following pages along with appropriate explanations or quotations from original sources which help elucidate the action. Number 25 on the Plan is described in the text as ‘Mount Goreb from whence the view is taken’; this detail is of special interest because it shows the angle of view marked by two lines subtended from the artist's (and therefore the spectator's) viewpoint and is a reminder of how Martin originally set up the perspective and scale for the print.

The main action, upon which the principal light falls, is indicated on the Key and the Plan by the number 14. Martin here quotes from the accounts of the Crucifixion which are given in the Gospels of St Mark (15:33), St Luke (23:44–5) and St Matthew (27:45–6, 50–1). The fainting figure at the foot of the Cross is ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus’ (no.15) and the figures in the left foreground include ‘Mary Magdalene and Mary, Mother of James and Joses’ (no.24). The ground plan of ancient Jerusalem and its architectural features are based on the ‘unquestionable authority’ of the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Athenaeum, 10 Jan. 1835, p.39): for ‘The Temple burnt by Herod’ (no.1) in the left middle distance, Martin's source was book 15, chapter 11 of Josephus's Antiquitates Judaicae (AD 93–4); the descriptions of the Calvary Gate (no.10) and the Palace of Agrippa (no.35) in the middle distance right are based on the same source. In the right foreground, in the chasm which is opening in the rocks, Martin introduces that moment described in Matthew 27:52: ‘And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the Saints which slept arose’ (no.22).

Martin also includes in his pamphlet extracts from George Croly's poem ‘Crucifixion’ which had previously accompanied the Amulet engraving and from the poem ‘The Crucifixion’ by the Revd Robert Montgomery (1807–55). Martin clearly hoped that by publishing his Description first - it is dated 1 June 1834 - he would stimulate demand for the print, which bears the slightly later publication date of 1 July 1834. In fact, the print did not appear until early 1835 when, presumably, the Description was also released. An advertisement in the Athenaeum for 10 January 1835 (p.39) announced that the ‘Crucifixion’ ‘shortly will be published’ and the print finally emerged towards the end of the month, when the same journal reviewed it. This was just the sort of delay which undoubtedly helped precipitate Martin's financial crisis of 1837, but in order to recoup some of his losses he did raise the cost of a proof before letters from six guineas (the price given in an advertisement bound into the copy of the Description in the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects) to ten guineas: ordinary proofs and fully lettered prints remained the same price at five guineas and two and a half guineas respectively (Athenaeum, 10 Jan. 1835, p.39).

The engraving was favourably received by the critics. The Athenaeum for 31 January 1835 (p.92) felt that it had:

more than the merits of some of its forerunners [and] also some of their defects; but the defects are neither numerous nor important, and the merits are of a high order. It is a fault, that the heavens above, and the earth beneath, and the troubled elements between, are too much for the human beings who people the landscape; and it is a merit, that the imagination, which made this defect, provides a remedy for it in the sublimity and magnificence of the scene.

The Times for 6 February (p.3) described it as ‘a work undoubtedly of much power, and though the minute size of the principal spectators of the mournful tragedy it represents precludes the charm of expression, that loss is fully compensated for by the overwhelming grandeur of the general effect’.

(The compiler is grateful to Michael J. Campbell for his assistance with this and the following Martin entries.)

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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