Great Works: The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), Eugène Delacroix

Louvre, Paris

Earthquakes feel like the end of the world. Everything loses their differences. Whatever stood, now falls. The ground opens up and turns over. The distinctions between what moves and what doesn't move are no longer there. Some pictures show things like that.

But in Renaissance views, there can be another world. Everyone is safe, rigid, disciplined. Roads, buildings, doors, walls, towers: these things are squared and ruled. Straight lines and flat surfaces run upright or on level pavements. And the essential point is not simply the clarity of these things. It is the difference between a place and what inhabits this place.

For example, imagine a city and its people. Sometimes there is a very populous scene, but still a sharp division exists between the fixtures and the figures. Or the other hand, sometimes there can be a totally empty space, a townscape deserted – but still there's separation between the place and the implied figures who occupy it. But then, turn to Baroque or Romantic pictures. Worlds have now shifted, and sometimes radically.

There is Eugène Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus. It has a story, if you care. Sardanapalus is the last king of Assyria. He has failed in battle. He is about to die. He broods among his intended victims. Around him, his naked slaves are being murdered, and his possessions are being destroyed. At last, his court will be burned. But nobody really cares what this picture is about, beyond a generic scene of Oriental Despotism.

The spectacle is all. The king relishes his sights. In the same way, the painting encourages us to enjoy this scene. This vast canvas is full of beautiful chaos. There is flesh and rich fabric and gorgeous colour. There is turbulence and cruelty – and opulence, ruin, decadence, slaughter, luxury, despair, violation, helplessness, sacrifice, the whole business. The massacre is coming to its finale. One after another, the deeds are falling down.

Meanwhile, the stage itself has lost its limits. Its surroundings are nothing but a total scattering. Its activities exist in an earthquake scenario. The great divan, with its golden elephants, spreads outwards into the crazy pageant. And at the same time, more dense stuff and violence enters from the outside, breaking inward through the edges of the picture. One force is centrifugal. Another force is centripetal. But there is no sustaining structure.

We see the scene is constructed only out of bodies, furnishings and smoke. Where is this horse based, with its plunging hooves? You can't tell. Where do all the legs and cushions lie? They pile up and pile up with no visible foundation. And the whole stage simply drops down below the front. There's nothing more to define or support these elements. There is no ground. There are no bounds. The scene lacks a floor, a wall, a visible level surface, a permanent stay. It has no grip and no hold.

Here everything floats, flows, floods, in flux. Delacroix whips up a wild romp. The whole scene is like a rolling, riding bed. Or like a sea, tossing and turning, surging and lapping, cast on a tide. Or like a sliding earth slip – or even a bouncy castle. It's an unsolid, unsteady, unstable creation. There's no distinction here between the fixed space and its occupants. It is the opposite of a Renaissance location. This scene has lost all definition between a room and bodies. Space has gone haywire. The world dissolves and tumbles.

So it's a world where disorientation has both a spatial and a moral dimension. Nothing and nobody cares about up or down – or right or wrong. There is no difference between killing and being killed, no difference between calm and ecstasy, no difference between animate and inanimate. All the same, these disasters are not too fatal. A universal catastrophe takes the weight out of mere human terrors. It lightens them. Humanity and the world fall together. This busy doom is almost welcoming.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was a wild Romantic – and a calculating artist. He revelled in fantasy, indolence, fanaticism, savagery. His 'Liberty Leading the People' is the great revolutionary icon. His famous 'Journal' is full of tips. "Nature is a dictionary," he said, "one draws words from it."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
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.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories