By Iona Maccombie Smith | The BL

The Roman city of Pompeii was a busy harbor and luxury resort equipped with elaborate villas, temples, theaters, lecture halls, courts and churches. It was located near the peaceful shore of the Gulf of Naples. In a single day, it was turned to ash and drowned by a near 20 meter thick layer of lava. But what was the cause of this catastrophic disaster?

“Merely enjoy life, because tomorrow is unpredictable.”

It was the catchphrase of many of the people of Pompeii. It clearly expressed their hedonistic thoughts. At that time, Pompeii was known as the ‘capital of alcohol and lustfulness’ across all of the Roman Empire. History tells us that Pompeii’s catastrophe happened at a time when human morality was deeply corrupt.

Could that lesson still be valid thousands of years later?

When seeing the remains of the dead left behind in the wake of the disaster, forever – made statue under their casings of solid lava, are we able to contemplate the lessons of the past?

Today, while walking in the ruins of the ancient town, some of us would consider why this beautiful town had to suffer such a devastating end?

For one Russian artist, in the early 1800’s, the ruins carried a very clear message to the future generations of humanity, of its past and of its future.

Left: The ancient city of Pompeii, was founded in 600 BC. It was one of the largest cities in Southern Rome. (Photo: Pixabay); Right: “Garden of the Fugitives”. Fossilized Victims of the Vesuvius Eruption. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The painting “The Last Day of Pompeii” by Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, a Russian painter

Karl Pavlovich Bryullov. (Photo: Public Domain)

“The Last Day of Pompeii” is a masterpiece painted by Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, a Russian artist known to his friends as “The Great Karl”. The painting was first exhibited in Rome and was warmly admired by the Italian people.

Bryullov had visited many cities in Europe, but the cities he liked most were in Italy. He himself lived there for more than 12 years. It was there that Bryullov became a master artist after the unveiling of his most famous painting ‘The last day of Pompeii’ (1833).

In 1834 Bryullov was summoned by Emperor Nicholas I to Russia after his brilliant success in Italy. The painting “The Last Day of Pompeii” was shown at the Emperor Fine Art Academy as an example of excellence for all aspiring artists.

It took several years for Bryullov to finish “The Last Day of Pompeii”. The artist had previously traveled to Italy to visit the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum where he made the first sketches for the masterpiece.

There are other similar paintings depicting the dreadful moment when hundreds of thousands of tons of hot lava were destroying all of Pompeii and its inhabitants. But none are more admired than the painting by Bryullov.

“The views of the ruins unwittingly made me travel back in time. It was lively and painful, these walls were still intact, the streets were still crowded… You can not go through these ruins and not feel a new feeling inside which forces you to forget everything except that horrible incident within this city,” Bryullov is quoted.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The Wrath of Divine Power

The wrath of divine power is powerfully portrayed in the painting. It indicates that Bryullov intended to muse on the moral punishment the city was enduring when it was destroyed by the volcanic eruption.

He portrays a Pompeii in which its inhabitants, who had previously lived in lust with a lack of humanity, suddenly suffer a catastrophic ending.

The painting shows the moment that Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupts, poised to sweep away everything in its path. Terrible thunderstorms flood the sky, as a looming indicator of the unprecedented horror about to engulf Pompeii.

“The Last Day of Pompeii”, (1827–1833) – Karl Pavlovich Bryullov. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The characters in the painting is a checkerboard of ancient Rome’s most immoral characteristics. They are portrayed as small and helpless people, cowering before God’s majestic judgment, each in their way a canvas for Bryullov to make a social commentary.

Selfishness, greed, lust, cruelty, promiscuity and the false worship of other Gods, are all features of the scene. His rhetoric was one of the corrupt social morality of the ancient Roman empire and as a necessary consequence the people of Pompeii faced the damnation of the universe.

The artist’s process and the use of emotive colour

The painting effectively depicts the acute violence of the fall of Pompeii. It is brutal and violent in nature, and harks to the similar fall of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. The artist’s use of dramatic colour conjures emotive drama to every inch of this enormous piece.

The image of Vesuvius flaming, with lava flowing violently from it’s burst seams and the brilliant white light of lightning bolts filling the sky, falling from what appears to be the heavens, paints a brutal picture of the horrifying sky of Pompeii’s doomsday.

The deep engulfing use of the colour black, in the dense cloud of ash created, and the impenetrable, dense smoke cloud hanging over the desperate people, can only be described as Biblically hellish.

Street of the Tombs Pompeii Italy (Photo: Wikimedia Common)

This darkness sits in stark contrast to the red of the horizon alight with fire. Its light reflecting on the buildings and the people, men, women and children alike, sheds light on their imminent doom.

There were eight entrances to Pompeii, but the artist referred to the “staircase leading to Sepolcri Scauro”, the legendary tomb of Scaurus, giving us an opportunity to pinpoint exactly where Brullov chose to set his scene. The Herculane Gate (Porto di Ercolano), a street of tombs complete with splendid graves and temples. This part of Pompeii was cleared in the 1820s, allowing the artist to reproduce the scenery with maximum precision.

The site where the painting was reconstructed in the clear sky.

The Characters of this Human Tragedy

To the people of Pompeii, the day of judgment had finally come. Stone buildings collapsed in earthquakes; the cries of man, woman and child filled the air. Human nature was completely exposed in the face of death. All of humanity was laid bare in the face of their impending doom. There are a number of characters across Bryullov’s painting, that represent the deep immorality and hopelessness of the people of Pompeii.

The painting is full of desperate souls attempting to run from the peril by carriage or on foot but what is clear is that no one can escape from the disaster, and everybody has to be punished for their sins.

The painter is not only an artist, a master of composition and color, but also a philosopher, conversing through images to discuss the disappearance of a great culture.

The center image of a woman with loose clothing seemingly tells us about the deeper cause for the destruction, corrupt morality.

In the center of the painting there lays the image of a young woman, in loose clothing, with innumerable treasures surrounding her. This image implicitly sends a message from the artist that the greed of the people of Pompeii was one of the reasons for their tragic demise. She is perhaps an embodiment of some of the most heinous sins of the people of Rome at that time, promiscuity, greed and vanity.

There are three characters who pull considerable attention; a woman on her knees, looking up to the sky, with her two daughters by her side. They seem to have perhaps recognized that it is impossible to overcome this adversity themselves.Their pleading expressions emanate their own mortality, they understand that their only hope is divine intervention. They all look hopefully to the sky but it is too late for them to be saved.

Next to the repentant woman and her two children, stands a priestly character, who wears a cross around his neck, but is looking instead to the falling statues of his Pagan gods. He is in darkness and so carries a torch, perhaps a comment on the unavoidable darkness awaiting those who worship false gods.

In contrast to the Pagan priest is the image of this man, adorned in brilliant white robes, a Christian priest, but still damned like the rest. Perhaps he had turned a blind eye to the corruption and sin of the city. He is shown to now be covering his head, and attempting to flee his fate, but is bathed in the brilliant white light pouring from the heavens. He is exposed and he too cannot escape.

One of the most emotional characters can be found in a young man, embracing his bride’s lifeless body as she hangs limp in his arms. Life or death is no longer important for him, he has lost the desire to live, and waits for death as a salvation.

There is, in contrast to many of the characters in the scene, the image of sons carrying their father. Perhaps it breaths humanity into the characteristics portrayed. Despite the tremendous danger, they are loyally trying to save their father, they would rather die than abandon him. The father is turning his arm to the sky as if to say, “forgive us, or at least my children.” They provide a glimmering hope, that even in the worst of places, in the worst of situations, altruism can still exist.

We can see just behind them, low to the ground, a mother and a son. The adult child is helping his mother to get up off the ground with slender hope. She touches her hand to his chest as if to say, “go on without me, save yourself.” But still he stays.

This is the filial piety, the ultimate respect for one’s parents, the conjugal love, the protection of a parent by a child. Here we see the basic values of humanity honored by the artist. It could also be thought of as a reminder to us all to keep our morality in any situation.

Finally, in the fearful crowd, we can recognize the painter, who is watching the tragedy unfold with his painting tools aloft above his head. Perhaps by this way, the artist wants to remind us that the we must all put ourselves in the painting too. If we were to face judgment how would we fare, as individuals and as a society.

Just as he put himself in the center of the chaos, with black rain pouring down around him, we must all too.

The Moral Corruption of a City

Archaeological remains of Pompeii show that at the time of the eruption, there were more than 100 pubs and 25 brothels active in the city, while the city had only 20,000 inhabitants. It indicates the prominent promiscuity and drunken inclination of its people.

More so, the Pompeii Arena is one of the earliest examples of such a place in the world and had a seating capacity of up to 12,000. When considering the population of Pompeii was only 20,000, this further highlights the great fascination of its inhabitants with immoral activities such as human-animal fighting. Could this cruel interest be one of the reasons why the city suffered such catastrophic destruction?

The wealthy city of Pompeii was buried in ashes by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD. The ruins remain intact in Pompeii and have become a living museum and considered a profound lesson to all of humanity of God’s wrath.

The Final Message

‘The Last day of Pompeii’ is now housed in the Russian museum in Saint Petersburg.

When looking at Bryullov’s goliath masterpiece, which covers an area of ​​over thirty square meters, we see the tragic story of many lives playing out. Perhaps though, not just the lives of the citizens of Pompeii but the wider world and all of its vices too.

‘The last day of Pompeii’ leaves a useful lesson for all of us with a warning:

“A lavish life with lustful desire and inhuman cruelty will cause catastrophe. Mankind only has the opportunity to escape from elimination if they keep to their morality, uphold goodness and have a genuine belief in Gods and Buddha”.