William Blake

The Simoniac Pope


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 527 × 368 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

Display caption

In Hell, Dante and Virgil meet those guilty of simony (buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment). Like all simoniacs, Pope Nicholas III is punished by being suspended head downwards in a well of fire.

The paper is watermarked ‘W ELGAR 1794’, the year it was produced. It was then bound into book form. The parallel lines in the paper show it is ‘laid’. This means it has more texture than Blake generally used, but the weight of the book would have flattened it. The two sides of the paper have different textures: Blake used both sides for his illustrations.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N03357 The Simoniac Pope 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03357 / B 812 35
Pen and watercolour 527×368 (20 3/4×14 1/2)
Inscribed ‘WB HELL Canto 19’ in ink b.l. and, on reverse, ‘8’ t.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 (10); Paris, Antwerp (pl.17), Zurich and Tate Gallery (repr.) 1947 (29iv); Masters of British Painting, New York, St Louis and San Francisco 1956–7 (10, repr. in colour p.58); Tate Gallery 1978 (325, repr.); Pescara 1983 (8, repr. in colour)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.218 no.101g1 and 1880, p.229 no.123g1; Roe 1953, pp.91–2 no.35, repr.; Blunt 1959, p.90, pl.58b; Burke 1964, p.124, pl.106 (reprinted in Essick 1973, p.290, pl.99); Klonsky 1977, p.112, repr. in colour; Klonsky 1980, p.145, colour pl.36; Butlin 1981, p.567 no.812 35; Gizzi 1983, p.114 no.36 repr., also repr. in colour p.60; Fuller in Art History 1988, p.365. Also repr.: Mizue, no.882, 1978, p.44 in colour

This is an illustration to Inferno XIX, 31–126, showing the punishment of the Simoniacs in the third trench of the eighth circle. Virgil clasps Dante to carry him away from the wrath of Pope Nicolas III, whose punishment for simony was to be suspended head downwards in a well of fire until replaced by another Pope guilty of the same sin. Pope Nicolas has mistaken Dante for Boniface VIII whom he has foreseen as his successor, but Boniface did not die until 1303, three years after the date established by Dante for The Divine Comedy, hence Nicolas's anger; Nicolas is also angry with Dante for upbraiding him for his wickedness.

Blake depicts the scene in a cave rather than on the open floor of the trench, emphasizing that it is a place of spiritual darkness. Dante's placing of the Pope in an upside down position to symbolise the subordination of spiritual to material values would have been readily acceptable to Blake. Burke suggests that the form the Pope's figure takes may derive from an engraving of an Egyptian acrobat (Burke 1964, pl.107; 1973, pl.100).

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

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