This painting, by the British artist John Martin (c. 1789-1854), was inspired by a Biblical scene set in ancient Babylon. The legend that the artwork re-creates supposedly occurred in 539 BC, the year when independent Babylon would be ultimately conquered by the Persians. As the story goes, Belshazzar—son of and co-ruler with the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BC)—was hosting a feast on the very day that Babylon fell. This feast was mentioned by the Greek scholar, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BC), who wrote that the Persians made their move against Babylon at a time when “a certain festival had come round in Babylon, during which all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long” (Cyropaedia, 7.5.15). For the rest of the story behind the painting, we have to move to the Biblical Book of Daniel, which told of Belshazzar’s personal feast and the famous writing on the wall that was said to have magically appeared in front of the eyes of the banqueters.
As told in scripture, Belshazzar’s psychedelic experience during that feast all began when he unwisely decided to use looted items from Jerusalem as tableware for his party. The Book of Daniel describes the Babylonian feast and the otherworldly event that it triggered:
“So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way” (Daniel 5:3-6).
Such is the scene that John Martin recreated on canvas. It is a greatly zoomed-out portrayal of the episode, to be sure, but the gleaming writing on the wall can be seen adorning the walls on the left side of the painting, opposite of the frightened masses shown running away from the miracle. In the aftermath of this incident, Belshazzar was said to have summoned the prophet Daniel to translate and interpret the miraculous inscription. The prophet reportedly told Belshazzar that the message said, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN” and he interpreted it as a bad omen for the Babylonian rulers, signifying their downfall (Daniel 5:25-28). According to the Book of Daniel, the Persians conquered Babylon on the very night that Belshazzar was hosting his uncanny party.
Written by C. Keith Hansley