Art of the Desolate

The Last Judgement

Introduction

One of the many consistencies present throughout mankind’s history is a fascination with endings. What does the end look like? Who causes the end? Who is left after it all? These questions are heavy and often avoided. However, when we hear about the next zombie film, we flock to the box office. It’s not fun to think about our demise, but it has nevertheless captivated humanity for thousands of years.

 

Early apocalyptic portrayals revolve around the presence of religion and how losing sight of a specific path could result in the end of times. A shift in art emerges over time, from religious raptures to warfare, to nuclear fallout, to climate disasters, and perceptions of ends begin aligning more with sociopolitical contexts as opposed to religious ones. All of these portrayals tend to align with the evolution of existential fear throughout history.

Smokey New Jersey Sunset after Quebec wildfires spread, June 6, 2023
Smokey New Jersey Sunset after Quebec wildfires spread, June 6, 2023

Ends within Walls

Many renowned pieces of apocalypse art came from France, as they had a surge of art surrounding the end of humanity from the ninth to 16th century. The construction of Reims Cathedral sparked a surge of Apocalypse art across Europe. The western facade of Notre Dame holds the only monumental apocalypse cycle to be carved in stone at this time.

 

Notre Dame’s apocalypse monument focuses on different stories of salvation, rebirth, and destruction within three portals on the west facade, one of the most photographed angles of the cathedral. The center portal focuses on the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse of John in the book of Revelations, the book that famously depicts the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The left portal alludes to the story of the Virgin Mary, and the right highlights Saint Anne. Catholics turned to Saint Anne as a patron because they believed her to be Mary’s mother, meaning she was favored by God to bear the Mother of Christ.

Detail, courtesy of Smarthistory
Detail, courtesy of Smarthistory

The silent corpses of the damned adorn the pointed arch as it closes upon a window with a quatrefoil, the cut design resembling a four-leaf clover. The word translates to “four leaves” and, in Christianity, symbolizes the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

 

The purpose of the monument and the overall cathedral was to serve as a symbolic glorification of the French Monarchy and draw ties to governmental support with religious salvation, as the sculptures telling stories of creation, destruction, and salvation shared the stage with the Gallery of Kings. The art, along with the architecture of the building, highlighted the importance of salvation as though it was an ultimatum to achieve salvation and be rescued from damnation. This emphasized that to achieve eternal life after the rapture, it was imperative to choose the righteous side. This depiction paired France and Christianity as being on the right side of history, designating monarchy and salvation as one in the same.

Ends Within Margins

John Martin was a painter whose work was extremely focused on religion. The Last Judgement (1853), The Great Day of His Wrath(1853), and The Plains of Heaven (1853) are all part of the same triptych, spread across three panels. Martin created this series of paintings to illustrate his interpretation of apocalyptic scenes in the Bible. They are the last pieces he completed before his deathin 1854.

At the top of The Last Judgement, angels sound trumpets and descend upon the Earth to cast out Satan and evil forces while the sun glows a deep red. At the bottom, those condemned to hell fall into the pit that divides Man from Demon as the ground opens up and separates humans on the left from demons on the right.


The Great Day of His Wrath, much like The Last Judgement, features another abyss that splits the canvas’s perspective in two. The same red sun finds its way into the pits of Hell, the entire canvas blanketed in a palette of reds, oranges, and black. Plains of Heaven depicts a view of heaven after the chaos of Judgement Day. It is incredibly serene as blue skies and lofty mountains fill the canvas with complete tranquility. This imagery evokes paintings from the Luminist movement that emerged just as Martin passed away.

Empire State Building, June 7, 2023
Empire State Building, June 7, 2023

These specific pieces provide insight into how depictions of an apocalypse evolved over centuries. Notre Dame did not focus on the everyday person, elevating royal society—reflecting the strength of the monarchy and its association with godliness at the time of its construction.  The people most concerned about this would have already been attending church. However, Notre Dame’s depiction also utilized a three-panel style along the western wall, using the arches of three portals instead of canvases.  Martin deepened the conversations on human interpretations of Judgement Day and the serenity of heaven. Notre Dame’s portals elevated the magnitude of God’s presence within the community while emphasizing the link between royalty and spirit.

Ends Within Lenses

Until the 19th century, discussions about an apocalypse remained within the parameters of buildings, sculptures, paintings, and scriptures. With the invention of the camera, the Industrial Revolution, and a surge in urban living, natural angles of humanity could be captured in this context clearer than ever before. Photography within cities, especially in the United States, provided a more raw angle of consequential overconsumption in dense populations. What once was the conceptualized romanticization of urban lifestyle quickly became a symbol of impending doom as wildfires from Canada ravaged North America, its smoke traveling through the east coast. Its concentration in the Northeastern states became so dense that the sun glowed a dull red, if visible at all.

Downtown_Calgary_Alberta_Canada_Wildfire_Smoke_-_2023
Downtown Calgary Alberta, Canada Wildfire

This orange haze has been synonymous with urban lifestyles for centuries; the smog is characterized as a filter that gives images in cities an ominous aura. This year, that aesthetic evoked a sense of foreboding as the smoke drifted threateningly southward, covering the sky.

 

As more images of the pollution were published, people began commenting on how the images made them feel. While many made lighthearted comments on “blaming Canada” for the terrible air quality, others focused on the consequences of overconsumption causing increasingly intense forest fires around the world, comparing the dusty skies to cinematic depictions of an apocalypse.

Conclusion

With rapid advances in technology and interconnectedness, humans have been able to alter the world at a dramatic pace, especially since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary art about desolation placed humans as the sole actors of destruction. Artists asserted that the collapse of humanity will not come from the unwavering hand of a god, but from our own unsteady palms. Yes, art today reflects the same magnitude of humanity’s fear of the end, but artists now focus on the impermanence of our future—it is not set in stone. Today, the end times are still discussed within religious contexts, but with the increased secularization of society and the demonstrated capacity of human destruction, many are more cognizant of man-made apocalyptic scenarios. Correspondingly, the art reflects this cultural shift. Perhaps more people fear the wrath of their fellow man more than they fear the wrath of God.


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