Monday, August 24, 2009

Blake's Image of Saints in Dante

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 in the Blake Archive:
Link to Blake Archive

In Martin Butlin's WILLIAM BLAKE, published by the
Tate, he 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!

The picture named 'St. Peter, St. James, Dante and
Beatrice with St. John also' can be found at:

Blake's image from Dante

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.

For a rare image of the Four Zoes together, see:

4z's in Book of Urizen

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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