|A Vision of the Last Judgment|
Page 51 Drawings of William Blake: 92 Pencil Studies
By Sir Geoffrey Keynes
David Bindman, in William Blake: His Art and Times, gives us an idea of the reason Blake returned to portraying the Last Judgment over a period of many years.
"If the Old and New Testament contain 'All that Exists', then the artist must aspire to bring all the spiritual states of man together in one mighty work. Blake's greatest painting, now lost, would have been the tempera of the Last Judgment, containing, according to someone who saw it in his lifetime, 'upwards of one thousand figures.' He worked on it for the last twenty-five years of his life, and it is known from a detailed description and a number of watercolors and drawings. Although seemingly conventional in structure and recognizable in terms of traditional iconography, as an attempt to encompass all the history of the human spirit from Fall to Redemption it is an equivalent in pictorial terms of Jerusalem, which was the culmination of Blake's efforts, beginning with the Prophecies of the 1790s, to create a Bible of his own." (Page 20)
In picturing not individual humans but the states through which man travels, Blake is able to give us an image which portrays Biblical history, the development of civilization, the journey man travels in his life in time and space, and the psyche's evolution toward wholeness - depending on the perspective through which one studies it.
Because of the length of Blake's description, the text for this post will include only the Fall which is portrayed to the left of Jesus or the right side of the picture.
A Vision of the Last Judgment, (E 555) "For the Year 1810 Additions to Blakes Catalogue of Pictures & ... Here follows the description of the Picture Jesus seated between the Two Pillars Jachin & Boaz with the Word of Revelation on his Knees & on each side the four & twenty Elders sitting in Judgment the Heavens opening around him by unfolding the clouds around his throne The Old H[eaven] & old Earth are passing away & the N[ew] H[eaven] & N[ew] Earth descending The Just arise on his right & the wicked on his Left hand A Sea of fire Issues from before the Throne Adam & Eve appear first before the [throne] in humiliation Abel surrounded by Innocents & Cain with the flint in his hand with which he slew his brother falling with the head downward From the Cloud on which Eve stands Satan is seen falling headlong wound round by the tail of the serpent whose bulk naild to the Cross round which he wreathes is falling into the Abyss Sin is also represented as a female bound in one of the Serpents folds surrounded by her fiends Death is Chaind to the Cross & Time falls together with death dragged down by [an Angel] a Demon crownd with Laurel another demon with a Key has the charge of Sin & is dragging her down by the hair beside them a figure is seen scaled with iron scales from head to feet precipitating himself into the Abyss with the Sword & Balances he is Og King of Bashan-- <On the Right> Beneath the Cloud on which Abel kneels is Abraham with Sarah & Isaac also Hagar & Ishmael. Abel kneels on a bloody Cloud descriptive of those Churches before the flood that they were filld with blood & fire & vapour of smoke even till Abrahams time the vapour & heat was not Extinguishd These States Exist now Man Passes on but States remain for Ever he passes thro them like a traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed thro exist no more as a Man may suppose that the States he has passd thro exist no more Every Thing is Eternal In Eternity one Thing never Changes into another Thing Each Identity is Eternal consequently Apuleius's Golden Ass & Ovids Metamorphosis & others of the like kind are Fable yet they contain Vision in a Sublime degree being derived from real Vision in More Ancient Writings Lots Wife being Changed into Pillar of Salt alludes to the Mortal Body being renderd a Permanent Statue but not Changed or Transformed into Another Identity while it retains its own Individuality. A Man can never become Ass nor Horse some are born with shapes of Men who may be both but Eternal Identity is one thing & Corporeal Vegetation is another thing Changing Water into Wine by Jesus & into Blood by Moses relates to Vegetable Nature also
Beneath Ishmael is Mahomet beneath the falling figure of Cain is Moses casting his tables of stone into the Deeps. it ought to be understood that the Persons Moses & Abraham are not here meant but the States Signified by those Names the Individuals being representatives or Visions of those States as they were reveald to Mortal Man in the Series of Divine Revelations. as they are written in the Bible these various States I have seen in my Imagination when distant they appear as One Man but as you approach they appear - 556 - Multitudes of Nations. Abraham hovers above his posterity which appear as Multitudes of Children ascending from the Earth surrounded by Stars as it was said As the Stars of Heaven for Multitude Jacob & his Twelve Sons hover beneath the feet of Abraham & recieve their children from the Earth I have seen when at a distance Multitudes of Men in Harmony appear like a single Infant sometimes in the Arms of a Female this represented the Church But to proceed with the description of those on the Left hand. beneath the Cloud on which Moses kneels is two figures a Male & Female chaind together by the feet. they represent those who perishd by the flood. beneath them a multitude of their associates are seen falling headlong. by the side of them is a Mighty fiend with a Book in his hand which is Shut he represents the person namd in Isaiah XXII.c & 20.V. Eliakim the Son of Hilkiah he drags Satan down headlong he is crownd with oak by the side of the Scaled figure representing Og King of Bashan is a Figure with a Basket emptiing out the vanities of Riches & Worldly Honours he is Araunah the Jebusite master of the threshing floor above him are two figures elevated on a Cloud representing the Pharisees who plead their own Righteousness before the throne. they are weighed down by two fiends. Beneath the Man with the Basket are three fiery fiends with grey beards & scourges of fire they represent Cruel Laws they scourge a groupe of figures down into the Deeps beneath them are various figures in attitudes of contention representing various States of Misery which alas every one on Earth is liable to enter into & against which we should all watch The Ladies will be pleasd to see that I have represented the Furies by Three Men & not by three Women It is not because I think the Ancients wrong but they will be pleasd to remember that mine is Vision & not Fable The Spectator may suppose them Clergymen in the Pulpit Scourging Sin instead of Forgiving it The Earth beneath these falling Groupes of figures is rocky & burning and seems as if convulsd by Earthquakes a Great City is seen in the Distance On the foreground hell is opened & many figures are descending into it down stone steps & beside a Gate beneath a rock where Sin & Death are to be closed Eternally by that Fiend who carries the Key in one hand & drags them down with the other On the rock & above the Gate a fiend with wings urges the wicked onwards with fiery darts he is Hazael the Syrian who drives abroad all those who rebell against their Saviour beneath the steps Babylon represented by a King crowned Grasping his Sword & his Scepter he is just awakend out of his Grave around him are other Kingdoms arising to Judgment. represented in this Picture as Single Personages according to the descriptions in the Prophets The Figure dragging up a Woman by her hair represents the - 557 - Inquisition as do those contending on the sides of the Pit & in Particular the Man Strangling two Women represents a Cruel Church Two persons one in Purple the other in Scarlet are descending down the Steps into the Pit these are Caiphas & Pilate Two States where all those reside who Calumniate & Murder under Pretence of Holiness & Justice Caiphas has a Blue Flame like a Miter on his head Pilate has bloody hands that never can be cleansed the Females behind them represent the Females belonging to such States who are under perpetual terrors & vain dreams plots & secret deceit. Those figures that descend into the Flames before Caiphas & Pilate are Judas & those of his Class Achitophel is also here with the cord in his hand Between the Figures of Adam & Eve appears a fiery Gulph descending from the sea of fire Before the throne in this Cataract Four Angels descend headlong with four trumpets to awake the Dead. beneath these is the Seat of the Harlot namd Mystery in the Revelations. She is siezed by Two Beings each with three heads they Represent Vegetative Existence. it is written in Revelations they strip her naked & burn her with fire it represents the Eternal Consummation of Vegetable Life & Death with its Lusts The wreathed Torches in their hands represents Eternal Fire which is the fire of Generation or Vegetation it is an Eternal Consummation Those who are blessed with Imaginative Vision see This Eternal Female & tremble at what others fear not while they laugh at what others fear> . beneath her feet is a flaming Cavern in which is seen the Great Red Dragon with Seven heads & ten Horns he has Satans book of Accusations lying on the rock open before him he is bound in chains by Two strong demons they are Gog & Magog who have been compelld to subdue their Master Ezekiel with their Hammer & Tongs about to new Create the Seven Headed Kingdoms. The Graves beneath are opend & the Dead awake & obey the call of the Trumpet those on the Right hand awake in joy those on the Left in Horror. beneath the Dragons Cavern a Skeleton begins to Animate starting into life at the Trumpets sound" .