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The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome

Updated on February 15, 2020
Mark O Richardson profile image

Mark has always loved art. First it was drawing, then art history, and now writing and listening to music.

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Analysis & Description

This is an analysis and a description of “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” (or ‘Dernieres pieres des martyrs Chretiens’ in French) by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) that was in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts years ago. I was interested in this painting mainly because of its subject matter. What is going on in the painting? What are its visual elements? What is the background of the painting?
The background on the artist: The artist was from France. Three versions were completed from 1860-1883, all of which were repainted from the very beginning.
The medium was oil on canvas. The painting takes place during the day in the Circus Maximus, a Roman arena. A large crowd has gathered and is in the stands of the arena. The Romans have opened a pit from a dungeon, releasing lions into the arena, to attack the Christians who are huddled together and are praying.
The visual elements of the painting: the painting must not have been finished. There is not a lot of detail on the people sitting in the arena, but you know that they are there. You can see what looks like pencil that was used to draw details on the arena. There is a lot of brown used in this painting. The only bright colors come from the Christians who are huddled together. The lion that is coming out seems like it was in motion but has paused as it has entered the arena. It is taking in its surroundings and is adjusting to the light. The lion seems to be the center of the painting and your eyes go directly to it when you look at the painting because it is large and dominant. The light appears to be coming up from above because the piece takes place outside in an open arena. There is a lot of empty space in the arena.
You can tell that one of the Christians is leading the others in prayer. You can tell where the artist had wanted detail because the pencil that outlined the various areas of the arena, including statues that were up in the stands.
Regarding the historical context, the subject matter was Christian martyrs who were being persecuted by the Caesars of the Roman Empire. This painting was from the 19th Century, so it was done hundreds of years after the Christians were being martyred in Rome. The artist must have studied Roman history and had at least seen the arena that the painting takes place in.
The artist lived during the Romantic, Realist, and Impressionist periods. I see some of all three in the painting. The lion appears to be of the Romantic style. The interest in the arena shows Romanticism as well. His other work seems like Eugene Delacroix. However, the way it was painted appears Impressionistic because of the sketchiness and the brushstrokes used but lacks the brightness of color of Impressionism.
The painting was worked on during the Realist period. I was not sure at first because the color did not seem to vary much, and the painting did not look very detailed overall. But some areas are detailed, for example: the lion is well defined, and you can see tracks from chariots on the ground of the arena. I concluded that the artist was a realist because the artist wanted to capture what it was like to be in the Circus Maximus. Also, I have seen a lot of the other work that the artist had done, and he is plainly a realist. This work is a bit different because Gerome mostly painted things from the present, not from the past. Although most of the painting is not very detailed, the lion stands out as the object having the most detail.
In conclusion, I feel that this painting must have been very important for the artist because he had painted it three times. I believe that the painting took so long because it was obviously important to Gerome to get the painting done right. It may not have been important if he were a Christian, but I do not know if he was for sure. The artist had completed other paintings that took place in Roman arenas and he had also painted lions in other paintings.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Mark Richardson

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