This scene of unsparing brutality, depicting slaughtered Christians in the Colosseum takes to an extreme a theme which Jean-Léon Gérôme first treated in his painting of 1883, Dernières prières des martyrs chrétiens, which portrays the same prisoners in prayer, as the big cats emerge into the stadium.
Gérôme describes the end of the 'games'. Dismembered corpses litter the blood-stained sand, surrounded by the incinerated remains of other, crucified victims. Sated, the animals are driven back to their pens by their handlers. The power of the painting derives not so much from its graphic nature, but from the shocking contrast between the blithe attitude of the last straggling spectators - drifting off as if from a football match - and the scene of horror below them.
The present work shows a strongly sensationalist streak common to much of Gérôme's oeuvre, a characteristic which led this and many other of his works to be reproduced by print-makers. Indeed, Gérôme's hyper-realist style and dramatic compositions had a cinematographic quality, bringing to life either the distant past or the exotic world of the Orient.
The present work weaves a highly dramatic narrative by combining one of Gérôme's favourite motifs - big cats - with a theme from Roman history which he treated often, for example in scenes of gladiatorial combat or of horse racing at the Circus Maximus. The extreme precision of Gérôme's touch, which in his Orientalist compositions can result in images of distilled but quiet intensity, produces in works such as this one a completely different effect. The viewer's eye is dispersed across a mass of lurid, but fascinating detail, stitched together with the same cool detachment as that of the spectators wandering slowly home.