Belshazzar’s Feast, John Martin

Belshazzar's Feast, mezzotint and painting; John Martin
Belshazzar’s Feast, mezzotint; & Belshazzar’s Feast, painting; John Martin

John Martin was a 19th century British artist noted for his dramatic depictions of disasters and/or impending disasters.

Here are two of his interpretations of the Biblical story of Belshazzar’s Feast, in which the arrogant ruler of Babylon shows his disdain for the enslaved population of Israelites by using their sacred vessels — stolen from their temple — to serve wine at a huge celebratory feast.

A hand appears and foretells Belshazzar’s destruction and punishment for his arrogance by writing on the wall (from which we get the modern usage of the phrase) in cryptic glowing inscriptions.

Belshazzar is unable to read the writing on the wall. The prophet Daniel is summoned to interpret the inscriptions, and informs Belshazzar of their meaning. Belshazzar, unwilling to be taught humility, ignores the warning and soon after meets his fate.

The mezzotint is a plate from Martin’s “Illustrations to the Bible” and is in the collection of the Tate, Britain. The painting is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and is actually a small version of a monumentally large painting that is in a private collection.

I actually think the dark composition of the mezzotint is more successful at conveying the sense of dread and impending doom.


4 Replies to “Belshazzar’s Feast, John Martin”

  1. The bbiblical story is to be read in the book DANIEL Chapter 5 and begins with the following translation into modern English: ” As regards King Bel·shazʹzar, he held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in front of them. While under the influence of the wine, Bel·shazʹzar gave an order to bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Neb·u·chad·nezʹzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his concubines and his secondary wives could drink from them. Then they brought in the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his concubines and his secondary wives drank from them. They drank wine, and they praised the gods of gold and silver, of copper, iron, wood, and stone.”

    Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

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