Carpaccio, Vittore: The Apparition of the Ten Thousand Martyrs (c.1515)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



About the artist

Counting sheep, the proverbial technique for inducing sleep, isn't a form of arithmetic. As the imaginary ovines pass before the mind's eye, you're not keeping a tally. You're keeping up a steady and repetitive rhythm, fixed on this succession of identical units, coming at regular intervals, going on indefinitely. You're after a hypnotic monotony. A picture can have the same effect.

The Christian legend of the Ten Thousand Martyrs is a story with a number attached, but it's so large it just signifies as a great multitude. What can you do with Ten Thousand Martyrs? March them up to the top of the hill? Not far off, in fact. The Ten Thousand Martyrs were supposed to be an entire Roman legion who, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, had all converted to Christianity. Ordered to worship pagan gods, they refused - and were marched up to the top of Mount Ararat and crucified en masse.

Vittore Carpaccio painted an altarpiece image of this execution extravaganza. The Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat is densely packed with naked, tortured figures. The scene piles up and stretches away into the distance. You almost believe that, if you tried, you'd be able to count 10,000 individual martyrs. But, as part of the same commission, Carpaccio painted another picture, of a more recent, more local incident.

In 1511, Francesco Ottobon, a prior of the Venetian monastery of St Antonio di Castello, had a dream in which he saw himself at prayer in the monastery church. Suddenly, there was a great noise outside. The church doors opened. A multitude of men, carrying crosses, began to walk up the aisle in procession. At the main altar they knelt, and were blessed by a figure whom Ottobon identified as St Peter. They passed through, "two by two, resounding sweetly in hymns and songs". Otto-bon recognised the stream of pilgrims in his dream as the 10,000 martyrs of Mount Ararat. A few years later, Carpaccio pictured this dream in The Apparition of the Ten Thousand Martyrs.

Most of the scene is the church itself. It's a working church, filled with accumulated, untidy detail. You notice the images on the facing wall, traditional gold-framed icons and - above the side altar - a work of contemporary Venetian painting, an atmospheric landscape, school of Bellini. You notice the abundance of dangling ex-votos, thanksgiving offerings, effigies of bones and body-parts and model ships, signifying the donor's delivery from accident, disease or shipwreck. The wonder takes place in a realistic setting.

The space of the church is like a box. Its big, airy volume is symmetrically arranged, and viewed, from floor to rafters, in four-square perspective. It's set straight on to the picture's view, as if the picture's frame was the rim of this open box. It's like a high proscenium-arch stage, and it has two entrances, one on either side. Through this lucid space, across the bottom, threads the double file of robed walkers.

Carpaccio animates the procession, putting the advancing figures in a sequence of poses that break down their actions in a stage-by-stage way - gradually sinking to their knees as they approach the altar, rising again, passing either side of it, moving on. But these individual poses don't interrupt the flow of the line. Everything stresses its steady, continuous progress. The procession is straight, and runs exactly parallel to the picture, and the figures are spaced out at pretty regular intervals. This is a line that keeps coming, that goes on and on.

Unlike in his mass-crucifixion scene, Carpaccio doesn't try to persuade us that we have thousands of men crammed into our view. There are only about 25 figures crossing this stage - with a few more glimpsed through the open right-hand door way, part of the waiting queue in the ante-chapel. But it is enough. The picture suggests enormous multitudes by implication. We have a line of men crossing our field of view, but it's a line of which we can see neither the beginning nor the end. We see only the brief section of it that is now appearing between entrance and exit. What is offstage might be infinite. The queue could go on filing past for ever.

The dreamer himself is the little man in white, kneeling at the railing at the left of the painting. He turns round to catch, over his shoulder, the extraordinary sight. As sometimes happens, the dreamer himself figures in his own dream. But what makes the scene most dreamlike is the parade of pilgrim-martyrs. This continuous and potentially endless stream of individual figures passes through with a hypnotic, repetitive, sheep-counting effect. It creates a sense of transfixed, ongoing, timeless flow. Carpaccio's The Apparition of the Ten Thousand Martyrs is a trance-state image.

About the artist

Vittore Carpaccio (1450-1525) is one of the great painters of the human scene. Of the same Venetian generation as Bellini and Giorgione, he was less concerned with visual atmospherics. In his scenes, every detail is clipped and clear. His dramas occur in single rooms, among fantasy architecture and realistic street views, in formal processions and killing fields. His greatest works remain in Venice: the St Ursula Cycle is in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, and the scenes from the Lives of St George and St Jerome are in the Scuola Dalmata di San Giorgio degli Schiavone.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment