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Baalbec - Ruins of the Temple of Bacchus, by David Roberts


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About the artwork

David Roberts went to Baalbek in 1839 in the course of a tour of the Middle East.  Roberts wrote in his diary 4th. May 1839:  'have begun my studies of the temple, of the magnificence of which it is impossible to convey any idea, either by pencil or pen.  The beauty of its form, the exquisite richness of its ornament, and the vast magnitude of its dimensions are altogether unparalleled.'

He spent several days drawing the temple ruins from all angles, these drawings became the basis of no less than eighteen oil paintings.

This picture, originally and incorrectly titled Baalbec, Ruins of the Temple of the Sun, presents a dramatic scene of classical grandeur, illuminated by bright sunlight, complemented by a large area of deep shade. The dramatic scene is enhanced by the three groups of figures, dwarfed by the massive scale of the ruined temple.

The figures in the foreground are being served refreshments and waited on by an African servant or slave.

Roberts’ tour of the Middle East lasted eleven months, during which time he completed hundreds of drawings which were reproduced as lithographs, published between 1842 and 1849 in six volumes with the title, The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia.  These albums made his fortune. 

Listen to a recording of Peter Betts' gallery talk on 'Baalbec - Ruins of the Temple of Bacchus' online now.

Modern Baalbek is a town in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon.  It is famous for its massive and richly ornamented Roman temple ruins.  When this area of the Middle East was part of the Roman Empire, Baalbek was known as Heliopolis.  Baalbek has been designated a World Heritage site since 1984.
There are three temples at Baalbek, the largest is the Temple of the Sun.  It was the largest religious building in the entire Roman Empire, it was worked on for more than fifty years and never completed.  Today there are only six Corinthian columns standing, eight others were dismantled by order of the Emperor Justinian and sent by boat to Constantinople [modern day Istanbul] to be used in the construction of the basilica Sancta Sophia.

There are two lesser temples dedicated to Venus and Bacchus.  The temple of Bacchus remains the best preserved of all.  The site was shaken by three earthquakes in the 12th century and once again in 1759.

In the 19th century Bible archaeologists wanted to connect Baalbek to “Baalgad” mentioned in the Old Testament, Joshua 11:17.  Modern excavations were first made in 1898 by German archaeologists but European travellers had been visiting the picturesque ruins since the 18th. century.

David Roberts

David Roberts was born in Edinburgh in 1796, his father who was a shoe-maker apprenticed him to a house-painter and decorator.  At the end of seven years he found work as a scene painter with a travelling circus, he also worked for theatres in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

y the early 1820s he was in London working at Drury Lane Theatre, and then at Covent Garden.  In 1824 he exhibited with the Society of British Artists, two years later he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy.  In 1830 he abandoned theatre work apart from designing scenery for several Charles Dickens’ productions.
In 1841 the year after this picture was painted, he was elected to the Royal Academy.

He was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851, he died in 1864.

Roberts was the first British artist to draw the ruins of Ancient Egypt, even today his lithographs and paintings of Egypt are still popular and frequently reproduced.

Listen to a recording of Peter Betts' gallery talk on 'Baalbec - Ruins of the Temple of Bacchus' online now.