Last year, I began the advent calendar with one of my favourite paintings by one of my favourite artists – Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt (find the post here). Recounted in the Hebrew Bible book of Daniel chapter 5, it is a fantastic story of ghostly hands, supernatural writing, and knee-trembling terror, all wrapped up in an atmosphere of gothic horror that’s a delight both to read and to imagine. So, for today’s advent offering – as it’s the season for feasts and parties – let me return to this biblical tradition and present you with another wonderful image that depicts it, painted this time by English Romantic artist John Martin. Martin’s visual retelling of this story captures both the sumptuous OTT opulence of King Belshazzar’s feast and the absolute mayhem that ensued once the disembodied hand began to graffiti the palace walls. As yesterday, I’d encourage you to follow this link to find the painting on Wikimedia Commons and then click to enlarge it. The detail you see is incredible – the glint of gold and precious jewels on the dress of the swooning queen, the glistening fruits piled up in shiny gold and silver bowls, the flickering candle flames lining the dining tables that seem to stretch back to infinity in this outrageously huge palace banquet hall. And the sky, just look at that sky – with its crackling lightening and ominous moon, it saturates this painting with a sense of sinister threat and impending disaster. Only Daniel, who stands still and calm in the midst of the melee, seems to offer the party guests any sense of stability or hope of surviving these terrifying events. Little wonder then that they crowd around him, seeking his protection.
The drama of the Daniel story is almost palpable in this image and we viewers may be glad that we are at a safe distance from the eerie events that are unfolding. Yet, at the same time, it is a thrilling scene that we encounter here and one I always wish I could witness just a little closer, taking in the scents, sounds, and sights of Martin’s feast with all my senses.