John Martin, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ 1851–3
John Martin
The Great Day of His Wrath 1851–3

Scholars have debated the term ‘sublime’ in the field of aesthetics for centuries. Many more artists, writers, poets and musicians have sought to evoke or respond to it. But what is the sublime? Is it a thing, a feeling, an event or a state of mind? The word, of Latin origin, means something that is ‘set or raised aloft, high up’. The sublime is further defined as having the quality of such greatness, magnitude or intensity, whether physical, metaphysical, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, that our ability to perceive or comprehend it is temporarily overwhelmed.

The best-known theory published in Britain is Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke’s definition of the sublime focuses on such terms as darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness and suddenness, and that our reaction is defined by a kind of pleasurable terror.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime was associated in particular with the immensity or turbulence of Nature and human responses to it. Consequently, in Western art, ‘sublime’ landscapes and seascapes, especially those from the Romantic period, often represent towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms and seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches which, if actually experienced, would be life threatening.

Other themes relate to the epic and the supernatural as described in drama, poetry and fiction, for example, by Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, as well as more contemporary authors, such as Byron and Mary Shelley. Arguably the greatest source of the sublime for European art is the Bible, which begins with the creation of the world and ends with apocalypse and the Last Judgement.

This display has been devised by curator Christine Riding.