The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

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

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The centre of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a swirling inferno. Equal parts fire, cyclone, and tsunami, it appears to melt and mix all the matter it engulfs. Even the fire itself seems to dissolve as the paint is reduced to abstract, blended smears that seem almost to drip down the canvas. The apocalyptic intensity of the scene gives palpable form to the stark description of the coming day of the Lord in 2 Peter 3:10–13.

The pairing of 2 Peter 3 with an image of Sodom and Gomorrah is fitting, for the biblical prototype of fiery destruction on a local level is the account of the cities doomed in Genesis 19. Earlier in the epistle, the author cites examples of past divine judgement, including just these cities (2 Peter 2:4–10). In particular, their story has sharp relevance to the message the author addresses to his Jewish Christian community: to remain faithful and pure like Lot against those who mislead and indulge in sensual excess.

Martin’s epic composition is punctuated by a diagonal flash of lightning that ends at the figure of Lot’s wife, an example of one who, contrary to 2 Peter’s exhortations (2 Peter 1:10; 2:1, 20–22; 3:14, 17), did not persevere in the faith. The figure marks a transition between two realms: the background (those marked for destruction) and the foreground (those who, like Lot and his daughters, escape through the compassion and patience of God; 2 Peter 3:7–9).

Ironically, Martin gives the viewer the perspective Lot and his family were prohibited from taking—looking back on the cataclysm. For when one looks at the painting, the cluster of survivors on the right are merely a steppingstone that leads the eye to the mesmerizing glow of death.

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