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Moon and Smoke by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin
Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance by Unknown artist, Tamil Nadu, South India

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Moon and Smoke, 1886, Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 364 x 244 mm, The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; Museum purchase with funds provided by Jack Graef Jr., Linda Stein, Susan Shettler and their families in memory of Jack and Marilyn Graef, 2019.9.59, Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute

John Martin

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, Oil on canvas, 136.3 x 212.3 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, TWCMS: C6975, © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums / Bridgeman Images

Unknown artist, Tamil Nadu, South India

Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance, 11th century, Bronze, 113 x 102 x 30 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1930.331, Open access courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Dissolved

Comparative Commentary by

The day of the Lord in 2 Peter 3 appears in the same way, like an unannounced thief (v.10; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; cf. Revelation 3:3; 16:15; Matthew 24:43). This sudden interruption of the cycle of life is exemplified in each of the artworks considered here; in particular, in the way circles—suggesting wholeness and stability—are interrupted by diagonal lines—suggesting imbalance. The circle of life around Shiva is broken by the slanting arm and leg, as if to initiate destruction; the still circles of the moon and fireman’s standard in the Tsukioka Yoshitoshi print are accosted by the diagonals of fire that engulf the wooden buildings of Edo; the slant of lightning cuts in front of the ball of fire obliterating Sodom and Gomorrah.

Restricted colour palettes also play a role, especially in John Martin’s painting and Yoshitoshi’s print. In these, it is the yellows, oranges, and greys of fire that dominate the image. They lack the vibrant, diverse colours often associated with flourishing life; rather, the muted range of these works suggests the uniform destruction of the day of the Lord’s fire.

At the same time, while all the artworks depict fire, the flames are styled differently in each. Thus each can evoke a different facet of the apocalyptic fire in 2 Peter 3:10–12: loud noise, intense heat, and all-encompassing scope. In Yoshitoshi’s print, the varied colours of the flames are layered one upon the other like orchestrated sounds that create the cacophony of final judgement. Martin’s image makes use of a feature of oil paint—that it can easily be manipulated and blended—to form a viscous crucible that suggests the emanation of intense heat. In the Shiva sculpture, each flame stands alone, as though individual emissaries assigned to burn up each and every thing on the earth and beyond. Together, they can communicate the sonic, haptic, and all-inclusive nature of the final fire on the day of the Lord.

Finally, the scale of each of these three artworks can suggest three different perspectives from which to view the prophetic vision of 2 Peter 3. Yoshitoshi’s print is on an intimate scale—a sheet of paper a little larger than a notebook, easy to hold. The main figure in the print looms large in the foreground with his back to us. He becomes almost a surrogate for the beholder, so that we feel as though we are the fireman on the front lines, dangerously close to the destruction. Martin’s panoramic landscape, by contrast, fills the field of vision, overwhelming the viewer. The huge scale of the canvas accentuates the small size of the figures of Lot, his wife, and his daughters. This creates an almost vertiginous perspective. In the case of the Shiva sculpture, an almost human scale is at work—and it is the only one of the three artworks where the human face is visible and facing the viewer, inviting an interpersonal encounter. This is appropriate considering the ritual function of the sculpture, meant for processing before devotees.

In their three different viewing perspectives amid scenes of fiery destruction, the artworks pose the same question that sits at the heart of 2 Peter 3’s vision of cosmic fire, sandwiched between verses 10 and 12: if all things will dissolve in this way, what sort of person should you be?