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Ashes to Ashes : Montreal Beaux Arts Pompeii Exhibiton

April 11, 2016


We’ve just had a quick visit to the Montreal Beaux Arts for the exhibit on Pompeii. (On Feb 6 to Sept 5).

This is the Roman version of the goddess Isis. Representing the ideal mother and wife, also protector of the dead and of children. She was the mother of Horus in Egyptian mythology.

The exhibition features many art objects like this Isis, as well as objects from daily life.

Pompeii was an ancient roman city near Naples, which, in 79AD was suddenly buried by 6 meters of volcanic ash falling from Mount Vesuvius.

The exhibit is all very interesting, if somewhat textbook in presentation, until suddenly you enter a room that contains these plaster casts of the victims bodies.


These plaster figures are people who might have perished in the fumes, falling ash and fires, and were encased by a hundred mile and hour landslide of liquefied earth emerging from the final collapse of the volcano.

There were over a thousand bodies preserved in this kind of natural sculptural mold. Sort of the opposite of fossilization. A void was left in the sea of pumice enclosing the bodies – rather than the people being turned to stone, as it appears at first glance.

They are captured in considerable detail. I had the impression I could see imprints of their clothing. There are no features, or hair. And some of the postures seem to indicate the pugilist stance – typical of death by fire.

I have read they no longer make these plasters, as the process destroys the skeletal remains. These actual objects might have been made before world war two. I can’t say for sure if they are the original impressions from the ash. But I expect so.


This is a chilling end to what at first seems like just another exhibition of classical roman vases and statues. This final room is undeniably moving.

There is something in our culture right now in which these images of apocalypse are all around us. We can’t help but stand and look, and think about our own future. We see climate change and over-consumption bringing disasters. Not always on the scope of Vesuvius. But still. How can we not look at these ancient Romans and think a little bit about our insignificance in the face of nature.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lou chiasson permalink
    April 11, 2016 9:52 AM

    Merci Marc de partager ce moment au musée de Montréal et de nous montrer tes réalisations, des plus réussies d’ailleurs. Je conseille fortement , aux passionnés du Sketching , ton cours sur Craftsy, PEOPLE in motion… Du pur bonheur et un partage artistique assurés !

  2. April 11, 2016 10:08 AM

    very haunting and moving – Your closing comment says it all so well!

  3. Nancy Vogt permalink
    April 11, 2016 12:26 PM

    Thank you Marc, for your thoughtful appraisal and moving sketches.

  4. April 11, 2016 12:31 PM

    Have you been to Pompeii? There is something horribly haunting about seeing those plaster casts in situ. There is one group of adults and children all huddled together with Vesuvius in view. I felt as if I could feel the reverberation of their terror. I am not embarrassed to admit that I shed a few tears wandering around Pompeii.

    • April 11, 2016 1:42 PM

      I have not been to the actual town. That would be fascinating and as you say, a little charged. Someday we’ll be back to Italy I’m sure. Next time with a car, not just stuck in one place :)

  5. sandra p mac diarmid permalink
    April 11, 2016 2:04 PM

    Marc, I always enjoy your wonderful drawings (and your book) just want you to know you have really captured the feelings i have always felt when being in Pompeii..the only person who has…wish I could go back right now and try again…bravo..making such a terrifying subject still beautiful and heartfelt…bravo again…sandra

  6. April 11, 2016 8:51 PM

    Marc: your best posting ever! Thank you for these sketches and your thoughts.


  7. April 12, 2016 5:26 AM

    Hauntingly beautiful!

  8. July 4, 2016 4:47 PM

    Hello Marc,
    For the first figure Isis – what kind of brown ink did you use? The one that runs with water, it looks lighter than sepia. Many thanks!

    • July 4, 2016 9:33 PM

      Hey Armella – yes that is Higgins Sepia. It’s a fairly rust/orange for what I’d call a sepia – but I like the color. It bleeds well with water! ~m

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