THE POWERFULL ILLUSTRATIONS OF WILLIAM BLAKE Radically different from the way of other Artists to illustrate the Dante’s Divine Comedy, is the approach with the Dante’s work of William Blake, (London, 28 November 1757 – London, 12 August 1827) English poet, engraver and painter.

He was not sufficiently appreciated during his life, also because he was considered to be suffering from severe mental illness, because of the eccentric and paradoxical visions he illustrated in many of his poems and works, Only a few decades ago his figure was very revalued, because of the great expressiveness, creativity and imagination that his works are permeated with, and the particular philosophical-mystical vision that underlies his work. He was an extravagant and restless, bizarre artist; early poet at the age of 13 with his work “Poetic Sketches”, born in the inspiration of the verses of Dante, Milton and Shakespeare; visionary and mystic, extraordinary singer of angels and demons, of the divine and the feral, crazy of the same madness as Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Gauguin. It is a remarkable episode that in 1823, four years before his death, he wanted to commission for himself a funeral mask: he was not afraid of death and wanted to see his face after his departure. From this funeral mask another great painter, Francis Bacon drew five portraits. Blake illustrated his own books, applying new techniques of engraving and printing, which made his works, similar to miniature medieval manuscripts. Works made with a technique he “patented”, which allowed him to print embossed simultaneously the text and illustrations, then retouched to watercolor. Blake’s last major project, which was unfinished upon his death, is a series of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, performed in 1824 on the commission of John Linnell.

William Blake Paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

But he had already begun, starting in 1821, to work on the plates for “The Book of Job” and for the “Divine Comedy”, which includes among Blake’s greatest masterpieces and which will remain unfinished due to the death of the artist, which occurred on August 12, 1827. On the other hand, the inspiration for Dante’s work was shared by him with his friend John Flaxman, who 1795 his friend Flaxman introduced him to Thomas Butts, public official, who from 1799 and for the next twenty years would be his patron. Flaxman, as stated in the previous article, also illustrated the “Divine Comedy” albeit in a less critical and original way than Blake. Because it is precisely in a critical way, with originality and courage, that Blake illustrates Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, with a stylistic choice, at the same time, divine and demonic. Consider, for example, the way to represent Dante and Virgil as women: enigmatic message of the same ambiguity of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” or the ephesal depictions of St. John the Evangelist of the Renaissance, because every man, in the vision Of Blake, has its own female emannation.

Let us examine, in this regard, “Dante and Virgil on the door of Hell”, depiction of cantico of Hell, preserved at the Medici Medici Library, Florence There are depicted Dante and Virgil, with female depictions, while they visit the Seventh Bolgia, the one where thieves are punished, eternally bitten by snakes with which they exchange features. Now let’s explain why Blake’s reading of the Dante’s world is critical: because, in his opinion, everyone in the matter of religion was wrong: the Old Testament, the Gospel, rationalist philosophers (Bacon, Newton and Locke are for him “the ungodly triad of the materialism”). So also Dante Alighieri, who believed in sin and his punishment in hell, while for Blake divinity was only goodness, forgiveness and mercy. But that of the critical key, was a luxury that could be afforded, since in addition to knowing 5 languages (Jewish, Latin, Greek, Italian, French), he mastered perfectly the Bible, Jewish Kabbalah, John Milton and his “Paradise lost”, tragedies and comedies of the sublime Shakesperare. On the other hand, he was influenced above all by Emanuel Swedenborg, through whom he approached a new interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, neoplatonism and occultism. Let’s now examine how Blake depicts one of the most famous and moving songs of the Dante’s poem, the V Cantico (part of the poem) of Hell, that of Paul and Francesca .

Blake delicately depicts the figure of lovers in a winter blizzard and among souls dragged into the vortex, symbolically out of control, of passions. Of course, not even Blake could be able to imagine Beatrice, the central figure of the work. He does so in “Beatrice turns to Dante from a chariot”, a painting, made between 1824 and 1827, and preserved at Tate Britain in London. The episode represented is the first encounter of Dante and Beatrice, in the Earthly Paradise placed at the end of Purgatory, singing XXX, 1-39. Alongside Beatrice are the Four Evangelists, under her the allegories of Faith (in white), Hope (in green) and Charity (in red). A griffon car tows the wagon on which Beatrice is located. The great painter perfectly renders the allegorical world of the Dante universe, but likewise highlights that the relationship between the poet and his vanished muse, is for the same a relationship of total identity.

The delicate figure of Beatrice seems to contrast with the bright colors of the painting, to blend spirituality and matter, Beatrice and Dante, who thus realize the fusion between heaven and earth, sacred and profane. But now we see some depictions of Paradise. For example, the song XXV, 103-139, where St. John the Evangelist is effigy, who questioned Dante last on Charity, after St. Peter had previously done the same for faith and St. James for hope. And below, we introduce a brief digression with respect to the Dante theme, to better appreciate the subsequent examination of the depiction of Christ contemplation by Dante, let’s examine how the Blake paints the Satan of the Apocalypse.

The painting under consideration is “The Beast’s Number Is 666,” preserved in Philadelphia, at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. The representation is visionary, but powerful: a man cleaped in two is at the feet of Satan, flaming of the fire of absolute Evil. Yes, a powerful depiction, the expression of the strength that even evil has in this apocalyptic dimension, but it is also the final fulfillment of the destiny of God’s creatures. Let’s compare the aforementioned work with “Dante loves Christ”, Paradise, singing XIV, 96-109. With perfect symmetry with the work previously examined, Dante, a human being no longer disconnected from his contradictions, but harmonious and musical, turns to Christ, who nevertheless is depicted in an extremely human form. Here is the paradox: the representation of Satan, above, is more blazing than the representation of Christ in the work under consideration. But the symbolism is mischievous: in the previous image the only thing that appears sparkling is Evil, because this kills every other reality, in the representation of the worship of Christ, everything is bright, harmonious, celestial, because the light of God has not need for evidence, illuminates without appearing blazing, it is everything and its opposite, it is fire that wets and burning water, in the definition of the ancient alchemy. This is the symbolism of William Blake, the one who has been most able to make the force of the images of the Divine Comedy.

Courtesy of Gianfranco Carpeoro

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  • Giovanni Francesco Carpeoro is a Writer, Researcher, Anchor man, Radio Speaker and has been involved in Symbolic and Traditional Studies for at least twenty years. One of the most famous in Italy. A discipline that, deepening the symbol throughout its history and range of meanings and applications, leads to range from Alchemy to Magic, from History to Philosophy, from Mathematics to Geometry, from the study of Languages to that of the Races and so on Discoursing. In this journey it is also possible to acquire some special knowledge and discover the explanation of some mysteries of the past.
Categorie: Artists