The Eruption of Vesuvius in 1774 – 1774

by Jacob Philipp Hackert




Only once, behind Wendy, as Jack arrives from room 237 (77:01-77:04). Those numbers are like a jumble of the year this painting commemorates, eh?

1 – 77 – 4


This is another of my post-final-site-edit discoveries. Just a heads-up, this is a lengthy analysis of this piece’s significance, to make up for where it might be missing in other analyses throughout this site.

First off, a necessary disclaimer: the official image for this piece on Wikipedia is the horizontal mirror image of what you’re seeing above. It was only because I’ve trained my eye to recognize the mirror images of the remaining 23 mystery paintings/sketches that I even knew this to be what I think it definitely is. Doing an image search on the mirror version, I’ve found that there are indeed several posted versions of the mirror image online.

These are certainly created by the same simple process I used to make mine (unless Wikipedia is somehow mistaken, or unless Hackert actually painted mirror versions of his own works), but it’s interesting to see that several others took the trouble to make them – this is not a common phenomenon, in my experience, people posting mirror versions of really obscure paintings. My guess about Kubrick’s is that it was made by whoever made the fake SKI MONARCH poster, or the reproduction of The Cowboy.

As for Hackert, he tutored a Tony of a sort in Balthasar Anton Dunker, and he became good friends with German countryman Goethe, who wrote a biography of Hackert in 1811. Goethe famously wrote the tragedy Faust, which has numerous other oblique references in the film, but perhaps most notably in Ullman’s Red Book. I would say this reference makes for a very close second, though.

Also, Hackert experienced the 1774 eruption firsthand, yet seemed to minimize the awesomeness of the event, by showing people leaning on their walking sticks, reclining in conversation with others, and some looking away, as if they’d seen it all before. Meanwhile, he thought to put in some figures right up where the main lava flow was issuing from the side of the beast, mere inches from lethal heat and magma. You can see a few others climbing up the side still, to meet their friends (reminds of Danny’s risky voyage into 237, and of Dog, Boy, and St. John River–especially since this piece also involves a little doggo companion to the tri-cornered hat man). There’s a subtle naturalizing of the event in this depiction, whereas so many other depictions of Vesuvius show leagues of terrified farmers and the like bowing and kneeling in despair at the volcano’s force (to be fair, Hackert also did this later on). And many others still romanticize the awesomeness of the eruption’s visual nature, creating something like a heaven/hell on earth. Hackert’s vision feels practically documentarian compared to most, and his yin-yang compositional form inserts a gentle symbolism about the relationship between the earth and the heavens.


As you can see in the image above, it’s almost impossible to tell that it is the image in question. Like The Battle of Sister’s Creek, there’s a clever confusion of shadows in the image that, when poorly lit, make it hard to recognize. The film version looks like a solid zig-zag of darkness against the darkening sky, but in the true piece, we see that it’s the three figures (standing what seems to be way too close to the lava) that create that sense of continuity between the volcano peak and the next rise of stone, below. This helps create the yin-yang shape that I’m trying to highlight by showing it against the upside down image. In the upside down painting, the sky creates a kind of “negative space Vesuvius”. I wonder if this was meant to suggest how the mountain’s historic nature is the inverse of its supposed purpose: Vesuvius was regarded as a guardian spirit in the past, but all it’s done historically is erupt and wipe people out.

And I’ll probably deal with this as we go, but there’s one other confirmed painting of Vesuvius, one painting that might be of Vesuvius (in room 237), and one confirmed postcard of Santa Lucia, Naples, with at least an image of a statue of Augustus Caesar, which points straight at Vesuvius. So there’s a bit of a running theme to consider.


The first thing to point out is where the name Vesuvius comes from, because it might slightly tie into another major theory of mine. Vesuvius means “Son of Ves” and Ves was another way of understanding “Zeus” (in his form as the god of rains and dews). So Hercules/Herakles is the “son of the rains”, and what was it that created the biblical flood? When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, wiping out Pompeii, it also wiped out Herculaneum, another town in the shadow of the volcano. So “Hercules” erupted and wiped out “Hercules Land”. If my pillars of Hercules theory is correct (basically that prehistoric global flooding lead to a transition from female deity dominance to male deity dominance among early human cultures, and that Herakles/Hercules may be the poetic expression of this fact), it’s a pretty spectacular coincidence that the demigod invented to explain this transition was himself connected to a natural disaster that wiped out his own namesake. Especially given the origin of his myth, where he slaughters his wife and children upon learning of his supernatural lineage. Although, I suppose you could argue that the people who named these places had a sense that the volcano could one day destroy the city, and chose those names precisely because of Hercules’ self-destructive tendencies. The site may’ve also been a seaside getaway for the Caesars, and featured artworks about Theseus (of killing the minotaur fame) and Apollo (of the moon landing fame).

Mount Vesuvius was considered a Genius-type divinity, meaning that it was seen as something of a guardian angel, or infusing spirit, but for what I’m not sure. Was it the guardian of the general area it was situated in? Did people feel the spirit of Herakles in it, and in the surrounding lands? In any case, it seems like Vesuvius was to its time and place, what Tony is to Danny. So perhaps the fact that the mountain might first appear in room 237 speaks to Tony’s failure to stop Danny from being hurt by the 237 ghost, and to the notion that Tony allowed this because Danny had to experience the four bird lesson key in order to survive the total ordeal. What’s also strange about that is that of the three I know to contain Vesuvius, and of the one I suspect still might have a connection to the mountain, none are ever in the same shot with Danny. So, if Kubrick is using Vesuvius to think about the Genius of things, he’s certainly keeping it away from Danny. But perhaps that’s because of the connection to Hercules’ familicidal tendencies.

Also, note how one theory about its etymology includes the word “shine” as in “the one who lightens”.


And one of the most famous people to die in the 79 AD eruption was one of two Tonys, the son of another Tony (along with his mother). Antonius Felix, and his daughter Antonia survived. Similar to that, the most famous figure to perish was Pliny the Elder, which we know because his nephew Pliny the Younger, stayed behind on his uncle’s rescue mission, then wrote about the event. So there’s two instances of close relatives with similar names dying and surviving the event, age dynamics reversed. Similarly, Jack dies and Danny survives, Jack being the older, but having the mindset/cognitive capacity of the younger.

The last major eruption before the most destructive eruption, of 79 AD was possibly in 217 BC. And, again, one such painting might be in room 237 (named 217 in the books), and the first second that painting is seen is 71:50. And its most recent eruption as of this writing was in March of 1944, while WWII raged on in Italy.

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As for using Hackert’s 1774 painting over his 1779 painting of Vesuvius, I think it’s interesting that Kubrick would go with the one just before American Independence, rather than the one right after. 1774 saw the Americans setting up their government against the British in secret. I can’t find any indication that anyone knows exactly what month or day Vesuvius erupted in 1774, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is that this painting gives us a touchstone for that year, The Battle of Sister’s Creek gives us one for the following year (the battle occurred in 1775), and Jack’s death photo gives us a reference to 1776, the birth of the country. One of the John Webber paintings in the hall was composed in 1778, while a much more obscure one was from 1777. So we have a good run of American Independence references, largely in the halls outside room 237.

I found a version of this piece on that lists the title as Vesuvius, 12 January, 1774. If that’s accurate, then what would that suggest about this scene taking place on the 12th of December, 1979? Exactly 205 years and 11 months (or 2471 months) later. The two most significant numbers in The Shining, it seems to me, are 42 and 237. And I’ve found a few instances of artworks bearing specific symbolic connection to these numbers. So maybe this 2417 is a jumble of 42 and 217, King’s evil room.


It is, from the perspective of realism, strange that the Overlook, situated on Mount Hood, not far from Mount St. Helens, would adorn its building with volcano imagery, as if trying to freak guests out.

And just in case I neglect to add this insight to my other studies, this painting only appears on screen once in the entire film, for four seconds, right after Hallorann’s blocked distress call, and just above a side table with a white ewer on top, which may feature a cross shape on it. I’m not sure what the triangular piece beside it signifies, if anything, but it looks like a little clock, perhaps. There’s a painting in 237 of a backlit white vase, holding a bouquet, and it hangs next to the might-be-Vesuvius painting, so this would create a thematic bridge between the rooms, if nothing else.

The film doesn’t contain too many German artists (like Hackert, or Oskar) that I know of yet, but that flower painting was by the Russian-born Nadia Benois, who married the German Jona Ustinov, and gave birth to actor Peter Ustinov, who Kubrick directed (to Oscar gold) in Spartacus. The historic Spartacus joined a slave rebellion at age 37 in 73 BCE, and they moved their base of operations to…Mt. Vesuvius! Julius Caesar was 27, and making his way into politics at this point, ascending to the role of military tribune, but it’s not known what role he might’ve played in Spartacus’s downfall. Caesar was bumped up to quaestor shortly thereafter (69 BCE), which made him something like chief detective of the Roman empire. Jack has more than a few connections to Caesar, so having his 237 exploration begin with a painting connecting to Spartacus might be no small thing.

Oh, that moment also features The Awakening/Dream of Jacob on the soundtrack, and here we have a Jacob Hackert painting.


In the mirrorform, this piece appears over Jack seeing Lloyd for the first time, and greeting him. “Hi Lloyd!” Is this because this is Jack’s first instance of greeting his Hercules Genius?

Though, here’s a wild, possibly totally coincidental connection. Hackert was the court painter for Ferdinand IV, who founded the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. As the House of Bourbon fell to Napoleon, Hackert’s fortunes fell with it. Lloyd will serve Jack some Jack Daniel’s, which that company defines as whiskey, but the alcohol is considered bourbon by professional standards. When Jack comes to Lloyd the second time and Lloyd asks what he’d like, and Jack says, “Hair a the dog that bit me!” Lloyd replies, “Bourbon on the rocks!” and serves him more Jack Daniel’s. Napoleon put the House of Bourbon on the rocks, and that house did recover to become (possibly) the second oldest dynasty on earth today (as much as 1465 years old, as of 2020 CE), second only to the Imperial House of Japan, by 15 years. So perhaps the Overlook isn’t the only dynasty Jack’s trying to hitch his wagon to.

Oh, and if I am right about the 237 Vesuvius, the mirrorform for that moment shows that piece floating inside Jack’s head while Wendy tells the tale about a crazy woman who tried to strangle Danny, and while the Spartacus-themed still life floats inside Wendy’s head. So, these two mirrorform touches would seem to suggest something about the two phases of Spartacus’s epic life: his freedom from slavery (Jack), and his defeat (Wendy), but that depends on how you look at the Ustinov connection. Since he played a defeated slave owner, you might say these are both about Spartacus’s liberation.

I should also point out (in case I can never nail down other members of the group whose work features in the film–though my gut says it’s just a matter of time), that Hackert was to the School of Posillipo what Tom Thomson was to the Group of Seven, a spiritual progenitor whose work informed the formation of a loose society of artists, with a united effort to create landscapes. So we don’t just have one, and we don’t just have Canadian groups of painters featured in the film.

The two as yet unattributed Naples paintings in the film (the one in 237 and the one in the BJ well) both depict Posillipo from different angles. Posillipo means “respite from worry”, so it’s funny that we would see these paintings at moments of greatest dread for our protagonists. Though it’s interesting that in the mirrorform for those two moments, Jack and Danny are both in moments connected to turning to their supernatural buddy, their “genius” self, Lloyd and Tony, for respite from a kind of worry. Danny wants to know what’s so bad about the hotel, Jack wants to know that he isn’t the monster some part of him knows he is.


Also, if you followed and read that last link, you might agree the name’s meaning was somewhat undercut by the fact that one of the area’s most notorious residents, Vedius Pollio, fed his slaves to moray eels as punishment for wrongdoing, which lead another of the areas residents, Augustus Caesar, who was visiting Pollio, to rescue the slave from that fate, and to commit the same crime as the slave had done en masse: he broke all of Pollio’s drinking cups. This, apparently, was quite an event for ethics scholars of the day, but even the great champion of human suffering, Adam Smith, embellished details about the event to prove that slavery is kinder under monarchy than democracy (why would a capitalist want to undermine democracy and soften slavery in the same fell swoop? It just doesn’t make any sense…).

Anyhow, that name “respite from worry” reminded me of the alternative title for Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. While it’s true that Posillipo has itself remained untouched by the genocidal effects of Vesuvius, many depictions of the area show the volcano off in the distance, smoking or blowing hot magma into the air. So perhaps Kubrick’s long been making the point that proximity to ultimate destruction, whether it’s war, genocide, extinction or omnicide, has a kind of absurd relativity effect on the minds of those closest to the worst possible power. You don’t have to be a Chomsky scholar to know that “some of the accounts [of how close we’ve all come to terminal disaster over the past century] are quite hair-raising”. So Dr. Strangelove shows us how, the people most able to control whether humanity vanishes from the face of the earth in a cloak of ash can behave as if it weren’t really as bad as all that, just as the Posilliponians can sit and watch Pompeii and Herculaneum get wiped out again and again from their lawn chairs, and just like all of us engaged in the current climate crisis (which is all of us) can opine on Facebook about how the next most disenfranchised people below us in society probably deserve whatever fallout they’re experiencing. In The Shining, the desire for respite from worry is exactly what leads to a numbing oversensitivity. This is another way in which Wendy is awesome: though she certainly should’ve gotten while the getting was good, she never collapses into this false security, or numbness. She only sleeps when she has good reason to think Jack’s taken care of, which is only after she’s nearly murdered him. When REDRUM wakes her from sleep, she’s right back into the game of survival.

And yes, there is a delicious point to be made about what this says about the sex act, and its function in human existence. All the (known) Vesuvius paintings hang just outside bedrooms (the Suite 3 one being the most obscure to the bed itself), and the Son of the Rains and Dews did slaughter his mortal family. So on the one hand it seems to say that we, like volcanos, need to release our stress and pressure from time to time (not to mention how we need to embrace our need to do so), or else the effect of all the pent up need to release can be too disastrous. Alcides murdered his family partly from the stress of realizing that he was not simply mortal, but a semi-immortal demigod, and that separation is not simply symbolic. I don’t think he killed them as a token, but as a kind of moral/scientific exploration of his newfound eternality. If I’m eternal, and everything around me is less eternal, does it matter when I destroy those less eternal things, my connection to those things? What Herc learns is, yes, it very much matters. The creation and destruction of things in the mortal plane is still very significant, even to we wise ones, we sapiens, unique in our awareness of our im/mortality. And like Hackert’s early volcanologists, it’s good that we should get up close, and stick our faces in these things. Figure out how to release the pressure before we blow ourselves to smithereens.

Next art reference: Mystery Carmichael