Friday, February 18, 2011


Blake began producing a set of illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy for Linnell in 1824. Work continued until Blake's death in 1827. Blake left a total of 102 designs in various stages of completion, including only 7 which had been engraved and made ready for printing. Blake had no great sympathy for Dante's religion or theology and made known his disagreements in various ways in the pictures and in notes which accompanied them.

One picture from the series provides a fitting illustration for an idea which I introduced in my last post - that of the wounded healer. At one point Dante is provided some guidance through Hell by someone other than Virgil. The Centaur Chiron in canto xii is given charge of Dante and turns him over to another Centaur, Nessus, to pass through a battlefield like the one on which Dante himself had once fought and to cross the river of boiling blood in which the violent were punished

You can learn more about Chiron at this website.
"Chiron symbolizes our experience of pain, alienation and woundedness, and is therefore connected to suffering in one form or another. In mythology, the centaur Chiron sustained a wound that never healed and he was said to have suffered unceasingly from it. And yet, it was this suffering that drove him to search for relief, and that search brought him the knowledge, wisdom and experience that expanded his knowledge about healing. This enabled him to counsel, teach and heal others, earning himself the label of the Wounded Healer. And it was through an act of compassionate negotiation that he was finally relieved of his suffering, by trading his life for Prometheus' freedom from torturous punishment."

We may expect Blake to picture Chiron wholly sympathetically but we see he has drawn a Chiron with horns on his head. The Centaurs were the punishers of those who have engaged in violence toward their neighbors. Blake presented the image to express his own opposition to violence in which Chiron was heavily involved. The old task of reconciling contraries forever raises its head: Chiron both was wounded and a healer, both was a warrior and reconciler. Contraries were expressed within Blake himself by his illustrating the Inferno which has no existence in his own system of thought. The inferno in Blake was not Hell but the furnace of Los into which ideas where thrown to be consumed as dross or refined as gold.

Blake's agile mind constantly sought ways to interact with the intellects of others; the wars he fought were intellectual wars. Dante was a worthy opponent.

Jerusalem, PLATE 34 [38],(E 180)
"Our wars are wars of life, & wounds of love,
With intellectual spears, & long winged arrows of thought:"

No comments: