The Fall of Babylon by John Martin

John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, 1831, Mezzotint with etching, 464 x 719 mm, The British Museum, London, Mm,10.6, ©️ The Trustees of the British Museum

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A Clash of Powers

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John Martin’s etching of the Fall of Babylon shows an imagined ancient cityscape threatened by every kind of violence imaginable. The foreground shows Belshazzar, a Babylonian ruler who desecrated the stolen vessels of the Temple at Jerusalem by drinking from them during a feast (Daniel 5:1–2), being stabbed in the back (Daniel 5:30). His wife and female relations plead for mercy with the conspirators. Battle scenes fill the middleground as the city is invaded by the Persian army led by Cyrus the Great, who will win this battle and rule the city.

The city represents the pinnacle of human achievement, with an extensive network of walls, columns, statues, rooftop gardens, and bridges. A great tower (echoing that of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9: a monument to heavenly aspiration and creaturely hubris), rises to an impossible height and looms over the city as it appears to be destroyed by the elements. God’s wrath at Belshazzar’s sins is manifest in the dangerous skies, lightning bolts, and widespread chaos of the scene.

The traditions of Romantic art celebrated nature’s tremendous power, in reaction to an Enlightenment focus on human reason and rationality. In the words of art historian Kathryn Calley Galitz, the Romantic movement’s ideas of nature ‘offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought’ (Galitz 2004). In this etching, the power of nature against the ordered city is an embodiment of divine will. The Babylon of ancient history is falling into ruin, foreshadowing and (in Martin’s hands) mimicking the second fall of ‘Babylon’ at the end of time in Revelation 18. The cult statue of Babylon’s patron deity Marduk—visible with his dragon in the very centre of this etching—is unable to challenge the power of the one true God.

In Revelation, the angel from heaven declares that ‘the kings of the earth have committed fornication with [Babylon], and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury’ (Revelation 18:3 NRSV). The grand building projects and organized public spaces of Martin’s imagined reconstruction of ancient Babylon show why the city’s appeal might have been so strong. He conjures up its luxuriant power even as he shows its terrible demise.



Kathryn Calley Galitz. 2004. ‘Romanticism’, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, available at [accessed 25 October 2021]

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