Commissioned by William T. Walters in 1863, this oil on canvas would not be delivered until 20 years later and is now part of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland as part of the collection bequeathed by the eponymous patron’s estate. The reasons for the procrastination are unclear, but, considering that the 1870s were the height of Gérôme’s production of Roman-themed paintings, it is likely that this piece had been finished at a much earlier date.
It portrays a rather common trope in the Christian imaginary, that of their early forebears being persecuted by the Roman Empire and executed by damnatio ad bestas, which means killed by wild beasts. In this rendition, a group of Christians performs their last prayer, surrounded by their brothers already crucified and covered in pitch, while their purported executors erupt from their underground chambers.
Even though there is little to no historical evidence of such practice being applied to Christians, it is still a mainstay in Christian culture, so much so that it has found its way into the English Language in the expression “Christians and lions.”
Such knowledge would not have been accessible to Gérôme, of course, but this inaccuracy is still fitting for this painting since it is joined by many others, which is especially surprising coming from an artist so well known for his usual dedication to accuracy in portraying Roman scenes. So much so that some critics would place this as the exception in Gérôme’s career where he placed drama and piety over accuracy.
But even though there are historical quandaries with the main action in the piece, it is in the background and the artist’s interpretation of it that the mistakes were made. In his correspondence with his patron Walters, the painter identifies the setting of the execution as the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome’s racecourse, which he reiterated with details such as the chariot tracks in the sand between the lions and their prey. The portrayal of the seated audience suggests the architectural features of the Colosseum.
In the background, shrouded in the haze of twilight, is a hill which Gérôme identified as the Palatine Hill, even though the depiction is more reminiscent of the Athenian Parthenon. Such aspects lead to believe that Gérôme composed this piece by combining different references to produce a background that would fit the drama of the foreground scene.
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