The first in a series of biblical illustrations by John Martin, this print presents us with the dawn of creation. The artist adapted the design from a similar composition in his illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1825). Milton’s poem (1667) contains a narrative of Creation in six days that follows the account in Genesis.
In his earlier design, Martin had focused on the deity placing the lights in the heavens on the fourth day (Book 7, Line 339)—the sun, the moon, and the stars. In this later image, the inscription cites Genesis 1:2–3 and so refers to the creation of light itself on the first day. Nevertheless, the work encapsulates all of the first four days of Creation: light, firmament, dry land, and lights in the heavens are depicted together here. Martin may simply have wanted to depict several aspects of God’s work of Creation, but his decision to depict several episodes simultaneously might also reflect the difficulty of depicting the first appearance of light as a stand-alone subject.
As in his Paradise Lost design, Martin depicts the deity placing the sun in the sky. However, here, the figure is less distinct. Martin was probably responding to contemporary critics who were outraged by the prominent figure of the deity in the earlier design.
The sun and moon are also more diffuse in this later image, perhaps in recognition of the fact that their creation is not properly accomplished until the fourth day. The light does not all emanate from the sun, as we would normally expect. As a contemporary critic noted, we also seem to see ‘light, for the first time, … shed[ding] its genial influence on the cold dark matter of the chaotic world’ (Anon. 1831: 253) prior to the heavenly bodies becoming light’s specific source.
Martin has depicted the world before living things. It is light alone that has vitality in this opening scene of his series.
Anon. 1831. ‘New Publications’, The Athenaeum, 181
3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.