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
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
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
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?