William Blake

The Inscription over the Gate


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William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 527 × 374 mm
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 Art Fund 1919

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In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the pilgrimage he made with the poet Virgil, travelling into Hell, up the Mountain of Purgatory to reach Paradise at last. Entering the Gate of Hell was a moment when Dante (in red) wept with fear.

Dante describes the ‘dim’ colours which contribute to his terror. Blake’s dark shadows of pure black pigment next to areas of unpainted white paper contribute to this. He used Prussian blue for the blue areas, and indigo blue mixed with yellow for the green foliage, so that they contrast. The blue, green and vermilion red do not overlap.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N03352 The Inscription over the Gate 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03352 / B 812 4
Chalk, pencil, pen and watercolour 527×374 (20 3/4×14 3/4)
Signed ‘WB’ b.l. and inscribed ‘HELL Canto 3’ b.r. in ink and ‘Lasciate ogni speranza voi che inentrate [?-the last word is obscure] Leave every hope you who in enter’ in pencil, reinforced and ?over an erased inscription, at top, and, on reverse in pencil, ‘No 1 next at p 4’ t.c. and ‘3’ t.r.
Watermarked ‘WE’
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 (1); Tate (41 ii), Manchester (48 ii), Nottingham (42 vii) and Edinburgh (59) 1913–14; Paris (repr.) and Vienna 1937 (18); Paris, Antwerp (pl.16), Zurich and Tate (repr.) 1947 (29 i); National Art-Collections Fund: Sixty Years of Patronage Arts Council, September–October 1965 (34); Tate Gallery 1978 (319, repr.); Pescara 1983 (1, repr. in colour)

LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.216 no.101d, and 1880, p.227 no.123d: Roc 1953, pp.53–4 no.4, repr.: Blunt 1959, p.90, pl.58a; Bindman 1977, pp.216–17, pl.176; Klonsky 1980, p.138, colour pl.4; Butlin 1981, pp.556–7 no.812 4; Gizzi 1983, p.82 repr., and in colour p.53; Warner 1984, p.112; Fuller in Art History 1988, p.372 n.17

This is an illustration to Inferno III, 1–21. Virgil leads Dante over the threshold of Hell. The inscription over the gate as written by Blake does not correspond exactly with Dante's text, which reads ‘Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate’; it was presumably quoted from memory. The literal translation is Blake's own.

Roe suggests that Blake here equates Dante's Hell with the created world as opposed to the world of the spirit. One sees the four continents together with the submerged Atlantis. Fuller disputes this equation with the created world, pointing out that in his later work Blake accepted material creation as a divine mercy and also that the inscription over Hell-Gate would hardly be appropriate for this world.

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

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