Blake seeks to provide the Golden String which can lead us through the labyrinth of our experience or his own poetry.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Originally published August 24, 2009

Toward the end of his life William Blake began a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy for his patron and friend John Linnell. Blake left 102 of these watercolor illustrations when he died: seventy-two for the Inferno, twenty for the Purgatorio, and ten for the Paradiso. Blake's designs are said to be not mere illustrations but commentary on Dante's text. (Martin Butlin)

One illustration for the Paradiso particularly caught my attention: 

British Museum
Illustration to Dante's "Divine Comedy"'Paradiso', Canto XXV
'St Peter, St James, Dante and Beatrice with St John Also'
Martin Butlin in William Blake, published by the Tate, makes these comments on the picture I noticed:
"Blake illustrates the successive appearances of St. Peter, St. James and St. John. St. Peter, who questions Dante on Faith, is represented by Blake's type for Urizen;  St. James, who questions Dante on Hope, as Luvah; and St. John, who questions Dante on Love, as Los or the Poetic Genius. Together they represent Reason, Feeling and Imagination. The overlapping of the three globes in which they are shown, embracing Dante and Beatrice whose echoing gestures reflect harmony, is a marvelously vivid image of reunion of Man's various elements that is requisite of true salvation."

Quite a summation of the Bible, Blake's myth, religion and psychology!

In this picture it is fascinating to see how Blake integrated Dante's poetry into his own visual vocabulary.

Dante's three conversations with St. Peter, St. James and St. John about faith, hope and love respectively are amalgamated into one scene. Blake himself wouldn't be left out of the creative process, so he gives the three saints correspondence to three of his Zoas. He skews the character of the Zoas to align them with the saints.

Urizen is a pretty good fit with St. Peter since Blake has identified Urizen with the fallen church consistently. The association of Urizen with faith is perhaps by his building a structure to try to make sense of being. Peter's first recognition of Jesus as the Messiah is a prime example of his faith. The identification of Peter with Urizen is implied by his facial appearance which is congruent with multiple images of Urizen as he is associated with the vengeful God of the Old Testament, and by the faint image of the scroll which Peter holds in his left hand.

If Luvah is paired with St. James, it might be on the basis of putting into practice the spiritual truth we receive, which is emphasized in the New Testament 'Letter of James.' I don't know why 'hope' would be associated with either St. James or Luvah.

Los, the Eternal Prophet, pictured as the descending Holy Spirit becomes in the picture, St. John, the author of the Apocalypse or 'Book of Revelation.' Although it is not the characteristic usually assigned to Los, love is entirely appropriate to him in his role as the Poetic Genius opening the world to imagination. St. John exemplifies love as the author of the gospel stressing unity among men, and between God and man.

In his characteristic way of making his figures ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations, Blake may have been thinking of the lower central image of Dante and Beatrice as Albion, (Humanity as realized in the one Man) or as Tharmas the fourth of the Four Zoas, who can be associated with the senses or the physical body.

Better students than I, of Dante, Blake and the Bible should be able to see much more in this picture than I do.


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