William Blake

The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory

1824–7

Medium
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 528 x 372 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919
Reference
N03366

Display caption

In the 1820s Blake illustrated The Divine Comedy by the medieval poet Dante Alighieri. In this poem the pilgrim Dante, with Virgil (in blue), pass through hell and then climbs the Mount of Purgatory towards the Earthly Paradise on its summit.

The mountain was created when Satan fell from heaven into the earth’s centre. It rises at the opposite pole to the city of Jerusalem. Blake’s vision, in Jerusalem, of England in a fallen state has a parallel in Dante’s vision. Even seeing ‘clouds unfold’ is an optimistic sign of ultimate recovery from the fall.

Gallery label, December 2004

Catalogue entry

N03366 The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory 1824–7

N 03366 / B 812 74
Pencil, pen and watercolour 528×372 (20 3/4×14 5/8)
Inscribed ‘P-g-Canto 4’ in ink b.c. and, on reverse in pencil, ‘Pg Canto 8’ turned through a right-angle b.r.
Watermarked ‘WELGAR 1796’
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the National Art-Collections Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the National Art-Collections Fund 1919
PROVENANCE As for N03351
EXHIBITED RA 1893 (19); Tate Gallery (41 xvi), Manchester (48 xvi), Nottingham (42 ii) and Edinburgh (52) 1913–14; English Painting Paris 1938 (164); Tate Gallery 1947 (59)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.221 no.102e, and 1880, p.233 no.124c; Roe 1953, pp.142–3 no.74, repr.; Bindman 1977, p.218; Klonsky 1980, p.154, colour pl.76; Butlin 1981, p.579 no.812 74; Gizzi 1983, p.154 repr. Also repr: Savoy, no.4, August 1896, p.35

This is an illustration to Purgatorio IV, 31–45, like the previous work an event before the poets have arrived at Purgatory itself; Dante calls to Virgil in his weariness on the long climb up the Mountain of Purgatory. The sun is partly covered by cloud, as in all the scenes in Purgatory, and was originally drawn emerging over the horizon. The version of ‘The Laborious Passage along the Rocks’ in the British Museum may have originally been designed as an illustration to this scene in a horizontal format (Butlin 1981, no.812 45, repr. Roe 1953, pl.45, Klonsky 1980, pl.47 and Gizzi 1983, p.125).

The graceful, echoing poses of Dante and Virgil recall those of the two brothers plucking grapes in the illustrations to Milton's Comus of c.1801 and c.1815 (Butlin nos.527 3 and 528 3, colour pls.618 and 626).


Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990