280. John Martin

Satan in Council
Mezzotint and engraving, 1824
Size: 480 × 701 mm
One of approximately ten known impressions on wove paper (Cambell-Wees 87)
Beneath the image: Designed by John Martin/Engraved by John Martin

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high on a throne of royal state, which far
outshone the wealth of ormus and of ind’
or where the gorgeous east with richest hand
show’rs on her kings barbaric pearl and gold
satan exalted sat, by merit raised
to that bad eminence; and from despair
thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
vain war with heaven; and by success untaught
his proud imaginations thus display’d.

(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II)

At the start of Book II, Satan sits on his throne like a Middle Eastern potentate and addresses the assembled devils as to the course of action they should follow. Four of the devils speak – Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub – with Beelzebub being Satan’s mouthpiece. Each speaker offers a different attitude concerning a solution for their Hellish predicament: Moloch proposes open warfare on Heaven; Belial proposes that they do nothing; Mammon argues that Hell may not be so bad, that it can be livable, even comfortable, if all the devils will work to improve it; and Beelzebub, Satan’s mouthpiece, argues that the only way to secure revenge on Heaven is to corrupt God’s newest creation: Man.

It is interesting to compare this majestic image of Satan with the following set of Felicien Rops’ Les Sataniques. Sixty-five years separate them, and yet the concept they each present is so radically different. Only thirty-two years separate Robert Johnson’s recording of ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones, but there is almost an equivalent shift in presentation (time accelerates, as we know). Clearly, Satan has many shapes, the most interesting of which appears in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. In an Oriental tale the Devil presents himself to a man who says:

‘You can’t be the Devil! You’re so elegantly dressed, so suave, so interesting to talk to, with such understanding of the world.’ ‘Aah, said the Devil, I can see you’ve been listening to my detractors.’ 

John Martin’s mezzotints of Paradise Lost are justifiably famous as monuments to the visionary strain of Romantic art. He was commissioned by the publisher Septimus Prowett to produce twenty-four images in two sizes, for an octavo set and for a larger deluxe set. The genius of Martin’s composition, and his uncanny mastery of light, dark, mist and shadow, in a medium as exacting as mezzotint, are as difficult to fathom now as they were in the 19th century. In April 1825 Martin exhibited twenty of his mezzotints at the Royal Society of British Artists, to great popular acclaim. A contemporary critic wrote: ‘We know of no artist whose genius so perfectly fitted him to be the illustrator of the mighty Milton … and he has more than realized the highest of our hopes. There is a wildness, a grandeur and a mystery about his designs which are indescribably fine.’