I’ve run a couple of pieces by 19th century French “Orientalist” painter Jean-Léon Gérôme in previous installments in this series (check here and here, for instance), but when I saw this particular picture on a recent article on Robert Horvat’s blog I knew I had to feature it here. This amazing picture is reminiscent of Gérôme’s other depictions of ancient Rome, especially Pollice Verso, which depicts another Colosseum scene. The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer is even more extreme and also takes a devotional and religious tack. The group of prisoners at the right, presumably Christians, are saying their last prayers before they’re devoured by the wild beasts emerging from the trap doors. Meanwhile other Christian martyrs, hanging on crucifixes, have been covered in pitch and several set on fire. This is a classic conception of a cultural trope from late Imperial Rome, where pious Christians were fed to lions in the Colosseum as part of the empire’s persecution of the emerging religion of Christianity.
Dramatic as this scene is, it’s not terribly accurate. For one thing Gérôme conflates two famous Roman public spaces, the Circus Maximus, where chariots were raced, and the more famous Colosseum, where gladiatorial combats were staged (that was the subject of Pollice Verso). From its size it’s obviously the Circus Maximus, but the interior and the crowd are more consistent with the Colosseum. Furthermore, though the idea of Christians being persecuted in this way has such resonance in our popular culture that the term “Christians and lions” has worked its way into our language, whether and to what extent it really happened as it’s depicted here is open to serious historical debate. Christianity undoubtedly was persecuted, in degrees that varied over time, in the late Roman Empire, and damnatio ad bestias–being killed by wild beasts–was a popular form of punishment. However, it was used for many crimes, not just for Christians, and there is no evidence that it occurred in the Colosseum or the Circus Maximus. Gérôme is here depicting the Rome of our popular (and many people’s religious) imagination rather than its literal fact.
We are not sure precisely when Gérôme painted this picture. American art collector William Thompson Walters of Baltimore commissioned it during the Civil War, in 1863, but Gérôme did not deliver it until 20 years later, in 1883. It could have been painted at any time during that long period, but as the 1870s were Gérôme’s heyday of Roman scenes, it may have come out of that phase of his career; there is, however, some evidence that Gérôme was sketching this scene as early as 1858. Since 1931 it has been held by the Walters Art Museum, to which the Walters family bequeathed it. Clearly it’s one of the great treasures of 19th century art, despite its inaccuracies.