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All That Is Seen and Unseen

The Plains of Heaven (1851-1853) by John Martin. Located in the Tate Gallery, London, Great Britain.

I sometimes wonder if C.S. Lewis had this painting in mind when he was writing the final chapters of The Last Battle. It seems to capture the magic and grandeur of the “real Narnia” that lay through the stable door, and the great hurry of the Narnians as they raced “further up and further in” over valley and river toward the high blue mountains of Aslan’s country. I don’t know if Lewis actually knew of The Plains of Heaven, but the artist who created it, John Martin, was clearly possessed—like Lewis—of an inspired and visionary imagination.

Martin (1789-1854) was from a small village in Northumberland. As a teenager he was apprenticed to an expatriate Italian artist in London from whom he learned the arts of painting and printmaking. He is sometimes mistakenly called “Mad Martin” because of an unfortunate confusion with his truly insane brother, Jonathan, who in the grip of religious delusion set a destructive fire in the magnificent York Minster in 1829. Whatever visions John had he translated (oddly enough) into grandiose schemes for reworking the London water and sewerage systems, and more pertinently into spectacular paintings like this one, which was left unfinished at his death from a stroke.

Fantastic Perspective

The Plains of Heaven is one of three large canvases—each more than six feet by ten feet—that constitute Martin’s interpretation of the traditional Last Judgment triptych. Like most of his works, these so-called Judgment Paintings, including The Great Day of His Wrath and The Last Judgment (both also incomplete), feature imagery that is vividly cinematic in its scope and scale, and charged through and through with the true Romantic’s sense for the melodramatic. Actually, compared to its two companion pieces, which burst with Sturm und Drang, zigzagging bolts of lightning, incandescent lava, and puny, awestruck humans, The Plains of Heaven projects an uncharacteristically sunny disposition. Nevertheless, the striking landscape, which at first glance appears extensive but still conventionally picturesque, becomes breathtaking—if not unsettling—as the realization sinks in that it goes on and on seemingly forever, stretching impossibly far into the distance.

Martin achieves this remarkable illusion with a subtle trick of perspective. Instead of the single horizon line we are used to, he lays out the successive zones of the countryside, from the foreground to the middle ground to the far distant hills and mountains, so that each local area retreats toward its own (hidden or implied) horizon. The grove of trees in the lower left corner, for example, suggests a horizon fixed not much above the trees’ topmost branches, yet the azure lake and its farther shores incline upwards behind them at an incongruous or even supernatural angle. When the brain tries to piece these various perspectives together into one logical space, it can only fashion a paradoxical world that is fantastically “larger than life”: where land should give way normally to sky, a more distant stretch of land instead rises up, and then another, and another, ever farther back in ascending ranks, infinity upon infinity. In certain late-medieval and Northern Renaissance paintings, notably Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander, variants of this “tipped-up perspective” were used to expose far more terrain than would be visible from an ordinary human point of view. Martin completes the effect of vast depth by making the mountains loom higher than any earthly peaks at such a distance could, and by losing them in the pale blue-white of the celestial ether; he loads the foreground with warm, dark colors to accentuate the atmospheric perspective.

Background Divinity

In traditional Last Judgment triptychs, Christ the Judge reigns in the center panel, with the newly resurrected souls on the earth below being separated into the company of the damned, who are sent off to hell in the right wing of the triptych (that is, to Jesus’ left), and the blessed, who are escorted by angels into paradise or the heavenly Jerusalem in the left wing. Martin’s Judgment Paintings follow this scheme in broad outline. Jesus does sit enthroned in the central Last Judgment painting surrounded by hosts of angels neatly installed in pews, all suspended above a vast black chasm that divides the two classes of souls. But The Great Day of His Wrath is devoted to the apocalyptic destruction of the world, not hell itself, and in The Plains of Heaven, the just disport themselves in the world made new by God, but it seems neither St. Peter nor any of the usual saints have been invited to the festivities.

Leaving aside the divine manifestation in The Last Judgment, Jesus (or God personified) rarely appears in any of Martin’s many biblically themed works—angels, demonic or seraphic are much more in evidence. (See especially his illustrations for Paradise Lost, where his temperament aligns perfectly with Milton’s.) Martin adheres instead to the general Romantic policy of conflating divinity with the awful (or awesome) phenomena of nature—lightning and crashing waves, imposing piles of rock and lonely crags—or at best with eerie glories of light that pierce benighted terrestrial panoramas. To represent the workings of God undisguised, as in the orderly medieval cosmos or the rational spaces of the Renaissance, where the hand of God is a literal presence, is virtually impossible in the turbulent Romantic wilderness. Divinity must withdraw, or be absorbed into nature; it may manifest itself only in elemental forces unleashed on intimidating scales. As in the Old Testament, God shows not his face, but only his back (cf. Ex 33:23).

I am not unsympathetic to the difficulties faced by artists who would somehow represent God in their work (especially those outside of the iconographic tradition, which could assist them with its repertoire of helpfully explicit forms), but it cannot be denied that the enforced immanence of modern naturalism generally pushes God out of sight and out of mind, with well-known results. Naturalism inverts the Baptist’s humble observation: Nature must increase, but God must decrease. The Plains of Heaven reduces paradise to an entertainment on the grass, a cheery picnic with a fantastic view—pleasant, but not quite the Beatific Vision or the eternal worship of the Triune Godhead. That angels and devils still inhabit parts of Martin’s world shows that he had not gone the full length into pure Romantic nature-worship, but neither could he entirely escape the pernicious effects of a culture that had Christianity in retreat.

That Old-Time Spectacle

When real faith is in decline, peripheral and sensational teachings frequently assume exaggerated importance. Nineteenth-century England, seat of Hobbesian materialism and domesticated religiosity, held on to lurid images of apocalypse, with or without any religious content, as the Industrial Revolution deformed the tranquil English countryside into a smoking wasteland. This period, too, produced Joseph Turner’s combustible swirls of color as well as literary disquisitions on the passing of an age such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii.

In this atmosphere Martin’s works found a large audience. They were purchased by royalty, and in printed reproductions hung in the Brontë house and many others. The Judgment Paintings toured England (and the United States) to great acclaim during the 1850s and 60s. Even so, they were rejected as “vulgar” by the Royal Academy (which never accepted Martin into its ranks), and by the time the pieces returned to England they were judged “unsaleable.” The passionate and peculiar John Ruskin among other critics dismissed Martin’s visions as cheap sensationalism—and poorly painted sensationalism at that. Set against the modernist avant-garde they were clearly old-fashioned. Even today, looking at The Plains of Heaven, it may be difficult to see how Martin’s white-robed, harp-playing beauties (most seem to be female) languishing idly in fields of flowers attended by playful cherubs can avoid becoming saccharine Victorian stereotypes, and the whole scene overblown and sentimental kitsch.

On the other hand, contemporary viewers, still further removed from traditional religion, have a perhaps even more insatiable appetite for the hyperbolic and the emotive than their counterparts of a century or more ago. Our theaters, for instance, are rife with overactive actors and special effects taken expensively to “the next level” in films where the end of the world is wrought by zombie attacks, alien invasions, and environmental disasters. Martin’s bombastic paintings have accordingly enjoyed renewed popularity in recent decades. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s observation: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Picture the Possibilities

But the appeal of the large and startling does not depend on the decline of religion. Indeed, art like Martin’s, and visionary art of all eras and styles, is a sign of the same deeply human capacity for imaginative thinking and abstraction which undergirds the grace of religious faith. From the human perspective, both art and religion come from our curiosity to know if there is anything more to reality than what we can sense. C.S. Lewis said he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia as an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and he chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours?” Human beings are perpetually looking beyond what is to discover what be. Art is about picturing possibilities.

This is a supremely peculiar business—peculiar to man, that is. No other creature makes art (just as none has religion). Given suitable materials, apes and dogs and elephants can be prodded by humans into making a facsimile of art, but no animal on its own has ever been observed to perform a spontaneously artistic gesture, and those creatures that make nests and other constructions do so under the obligations of instinct, and always for demonstrably practical purposes. Not even the angels make art. Only humans deliberately take bits and pieces of nature and put them together in new configurations with the sole purpose of making something to be viewed. It may be that these reconfigured materials will look like something in the world from which they were taken: a painting of a landscape—made of powdered land, among other things; or a portrait bust in marble—”remember thou art dust.” Art is necessarily the mirror of nature because it relies on nature for its very substance and inspiration.

But not all its inspiration, as the existence of religious art proves.

What makes human artistry astonishing is not that it mirrors nature, but that it can make visible what has never appeared in nature at all: things seen and unseen, actual and potential, possible and impossible—all are open to it, moving further up and further in, in unending perspective, to the ends of time and the plains of heaven.

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