In 1824, Blake’s friend the artist John Linnell, commissioned him to make a series of illustrations based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake was then in his late sixties. A contemporary account informs us that he designed 100 watercolours of this subject ‘during a fortnight’s illness in bed.'
Here you'll find seven illustrations from Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Each picture is accompanied by an explanation and an original audio recording from the 1812 translation of Dante that Blake himself used when making his designs. So this is your chance to learn not just about Blake, but also about the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).
The Divine Comedy opens with Dante lost in a dark wood in a fearful valley. Finally he sees a hill on which the sun is shining, and his heart fills with hope. But as he starts his climb, he is confronted by three beasts.
First comes a leopard, that, while not really frightening him, does block his path. Then comes a ferocious, ravenous lion followed by a she-wolf. Dante is terrified and is losing all hope of climbing the hill when a man appears. It is Virgil, the Roman epic poet. He has been sent by Beatrice (the woman Dante loved and who inspired him to write) to lead him on a journey of discovery through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
To explain the allegory: Dante, busied about the affairs of the world, has wandered from the path of righteousness. He tries to find the path back but is diverted by worldly pleasure (the leopard), worldly ambition (the lion), and by avarice (the she-wolf). Virgil, who represents reason, has come to lead Dante to Beatrice, who represents Divine revelation and the state of grace.
Notice the Christ-like pose and appearance (diaphanous robes, flowing locks) of Virgil, and the exaggerated ‘terror pose’ of the fleeing Dante. Notice also that the three beasts hardly look terrifying at all. Blake, in fact, seemed to have difficulties depicting wild animals. (Compare, for example, the tiger in Songs of Experience).
Dante is being led by Virgil, the Roman poet, through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Here they are shown entering the Gate of Hell. Once inside, they shall first pass through the region where the souls of the uncommitted (those who lived their lives without doing anything notably good or bad) reside. They shall then be ferried by Charon across the river Acheron into Hell proper. Virgil is the right-hand figure in blue, Dante the left-hand one in grey.
Notice how the greenery framing the outside of the gate contrasts with the bleak panorama of fire and ice inside. If you look carefully you can see tiny figures in torment on the hills. These successive hills represent the different circles of hell, where the souls of people guilty of different sins are punished in an appropriate manner. Those guilty of the sin of lust, for example, are buffeted about by the winds of passion and desire in the second circle.
In this circle people guilty of the sin of lust are whirled round and round in an unending storm. The storm, of course, represents irresistible passion. Among those being blown about are mythic and historical queens such as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of Egypt. Dante, however, chooses to speak to Paolo and Francesca, famous lovers from Rimini.
Francesca had been married to the brave, but physically deformed Gianciotto. She was reading an Arthurian romance with his better-looking brother, Paolo, when passion got the better of them. Gianciotto, enraged, murdered them both, for which he was consigned to the deepest circle of Hell (where Dante shall later meet him).
Dante is so moved by this romantic tale that he faints, hence his position flat on his back. Notice that above Virgil’s head a sun-like disc contains a sketch of a couple embracing, while the wind-blown lovers themselves seem to be flying up and out of the picture to freedom. Blake disapproved of Dante for depicting God as a vengeful judge, whose role was to inflict ingenious punishment (similar to his own Urizen), and these details are his subtle protest. As we can see in poems such as The Garden Of Love, Blake himself believed that suppressing desire was a far worse crime than yielding to it.
Cerberus is a monstrous three-headed dog who stood guard over Hades, the Hell of classical mythology. Here in the Divine Comedy he stands guard over the third circle of Hell. He is always hungry, and will only allow Dante and Virgil to pass after they have placated him by throwing earth into his three mouths. It is the gluttons who are punished in this circle. Their fate is to lie wallowing in the mud like pigs, pelted by an endless storm of hail and snow, in the very opposite of luxury.
Simony is the sin of exploiting one’s position in the church to make money, and the eighth Circle of Hell is a chasm containing the popes guilty of this sin. Their punishment is to be thrust upside down in a stone hole, with the soles of their feet on fire.
This picture depicts Pope Nicholas III. Dante has just been ranting against the corruption of the church, and against Nicholas in particular. In response, Pope Nicholas has writhed in anger, causing an alarmed Dante to leap into Virgil’s arms.
Notice how Dante seems to have literally shrunk from fear. Notice also the blue-lighting that gives an atmosphere of unworldly horror to this dynamic picture.
In this picture Dante (standing in the right hand corner) finally meets Beatrice, who is the crowned figure on the chariot. Beatrice was the love of Dante’s life, and was the subject of his first collection of poems, Vita Nuova. She died when she was only 25 years old – hence her presence in the afterlife as the central figure of The Divine Comedy.
Anxious that Dante had gone astray after her death, it was Beatrice who, in the scheme of the poem, arranged for Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory. She is veiled but Dante nonetheless senses who she is and begins to tremble. Beatrice, however, represents more than love. In the scheme of the poem she is divine revelation and grace.
The rich and bright colours used here express Dante’s double delight. He is reunited with his lady-love, and at the same time is experiencing a revelation of the divine.
In Paradise Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. They are now close to God, and so nearly at the end of their journey.
This picture shows the angels arranged in concentric circles of light around the deity. Beatrice explains to Dante that the closer to God they stand, the brighter and the more powerful they are. God at the center is depicted as a bearded old man resembling Urizen. The angels (somewhat like the staff in the hierarchy of a Japanese company) grow older as they get closer to God, although immediately beside Him are the younger Cherubim and Seraphim.
Blake died while working on this commission, so this picture, which comes from the end of Dante’s trilogy, remains an unfinished sketch. The loss is less than it might be since Blake (like Gustave Dore and other artists who have illustrated Dante) found that Purgatory and Paradise offer much less interesting subject matter than Hell with all its perverse and bizarre punishments.