Supplementing Text Through Art: John Martin’s Seventh Plague of Egypt
by Elijah Septoff
Books are often given new life in the form of movies. Whether a book and its movie share any significant correlation outside of the title and a few plot points is arguable; most movies will spin the text in a new way. Art, like movies, can expand on the written word and express emotions or details that are not present in the original. With the rise in novel to graphic novel remakes, fan art, and cover art, it is easy to see examples of this everywhere. This is no new phenomenon, however, existing for as long as stories have been told with images carved into cave walls or drawn in the sand.
Going less far back in time, one can see a plethora of art that represent the number one bestseller of all time: The Bible. Likely every biblical story told has been reborn in artwork at some point. Most people are aware of statues of saints in older buildings, beautiful stained-glass windows in churches, or Ecce Homo, the infamous botched restoration of a painting of Jesus in 2012. But Biblical art is more diverse than that, and the artwork of John Martin (1789-1854) is a prime example. He was an English Romantic artist with a love for depicting cataclysmic events in brilliant detail. One of his more famous Biblical works is Seventh Plague of Egypt, 1823, which is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
The seventh plague in the Bible is more or less summed up in the line “then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth” (Exodus 9:23). There is an emphasis on the storm striking everything, from man to beast, breaking every tree, but obviously not causing harm to the people of Israel. Like most stories in the Bible, the passage provides only a short description of the scene. It is not overly flowery with its language, nor does it invoke much emotion, except for possibly a few lines from the Pharaoh of Egypt. There are many different reasons why the Bible could have been written this curtly, but those are up for theological or literary debates. John Martin’s Seventh Plague of Egypt could supplement those debates however, as it helps to clarify the written passage.
John Martin was a master at filling a landscape, ripe with movement, and copious amounts of figures. Despite each figure being miniscule compared to the larger scope of the painting, every person’s emotion is written on their face or in their movement. When viewing the painting, unlike when reading the Biblical passage, one does not have to imagine the horror the people must be facing as it is displayed on the face of the Pharaoh and those who are physically and symbolically in terror behind him. This choice to have the Pharaoh on one side, standing in shock in front of his people, is fantastic in terms of composition. It contrasts so drastically from Moses and his brother standing on the other side of the painting, basked in a luminosity that the rest of the landscape does not have. It represents the power that God endowed Moses with, as described in the text, but heightened even more so by the dichotomy the composition makes with the Pharaoh. Martin does not exaggerate the story; he does not give undue justice to Moses or weaken the Pharaoh’s impressive people. By showing the two side by side, basked in the throes of the storm, Martin highlights the differences between the two leaders, Moses and Pharaoh.
Moreover, the city, full of pyramids and pillars decorated with art and stories, is also a major component in this piece. In the Bible there is no real description of the city. When the Pharaoh pleads to end the plagues, he references himself and his people, but does not reference the destruction done to the city itself. Thus Martin captures this beautifully, bringing the storm into the city, twirling the boats and the water in the port disastrously, without actually straying too far from the text. There is no horrifying crash of a tower or lightning-struck pyramid. The feeling is there, in oil on canvas, that all that destruction is possible, the storm clouds coming nearer to the cowering people and buildings, but it still leaves some room for the imagination. Martin’s painting augments the text because it allows the viewer to understand the vast horror that the plague brings, without going overboard on destruction or hyperbole.