Illustrated companion

The artist John Linnell was Blake's patron and supporter from 1818 until Blake's death in 1827. Among the commissions Linnell gave Blake was one for a set of illustrations to the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri's epic vision, composed from 1300-21, of the Christian myths of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise [including Tate Gallery N03351-N03370]. Blake's disciple Samuel Palmer recorded seeing him at work on the project when he and Linnell visited Blake on 9 October 1824: 'We found him lame in bed, of a scalded foot (or leg). There, not inactive, though Sixty-seven years old, but hard-working on a bed covered with books sat he up like one on the Antique patriarchs or a dying Michelangelo. Thus and there was he making in the leaves of a great book (folio) the sublimest designs from his (not superior) Dante'.

Blake's illustrations to Dante are notorious for containing a half-hidden critical commentary on what Blake saw as Dante's too orthodox Christian views. Blake felt that Dante did not have a true vision of the spiritual and that his great poem was based too closely on the natural world: 'Everything in Dante's Comedia shows that for Tyrannical purposes he has made this World the Foundation of All and the Goddess Nature Memory is his Inspirer and not the Imagination the Holy Ghost'. Believing as he did in the total forgiveness of sins, Blake particularly objected to Dante's vengeful vision of the sinners being punished in Hell.

In the Purgatory section of the Divine Comedy Dante finds himself looking across the river Lethe towards the Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise. Through the garden he sees an amazing procession led by a two wheeled chariot drawn by a Gryphon and accompanied by the angelic forms of the four authors of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When the procession nears him, the figure of Beatrice, Dante's dead lover, descends from above and Dante suddenly finds 'The power of ancient love was strong with me'. It is all marvellously described by Dante, and Blake has created from it a magical fantasy, beautifully coloured in blue, red and yellow, highly decorative, and fascinating to look at even if its true meaning is not known. Dante stands by the head of the Gryphon, and the three women in the foreground are Faith, (in white) Hope, (in green) and Charity (in red). The heads of the four Evangelists appear from amidst their peacock feather wings on either side of Beatrice. For Dante, Beatrice symbolised the Christian Church, but Blake has given her a gold crown and made her represent the evil-goddess Vala in his own mythology. Vala is goddess of nature, and in showing Dante submitting to her Blake is commenting on Dante's inability to transcend the material world and reach the true world of the spirit.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.69