Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton's 'Paradise Lost') c.1735–40
Satan, Sin and Death by William Hogarth is the earliest known painting of an episode from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) and the first attempt to create a history painting based on the poet’s work (Tate T00790, fig.1).1 Given its accepted date of c.1735–40, we can see it as playing a seminal role in the development of the visual interpretation of that text. Although book illustrations to Paradise Lost had been produced previously, notably by John Medina and Louis Chéron, Hogarth’s painted version led the way for many subsequent interpretations, which contributed to the development of a sublime aesthetic.
From its first publication Milton’s poem was acknowledged as being sublime. But it was not until after the appearance of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) that the poem was exploited by Romantic painters, as the physical qualities that Burke emphasised as being sublime could be found in abundance in Milton’s descriptions. Hogarth’s earlier, pre-Burkean painting could also, however, be said to be exploring a specifically sublime aesthetic since he was illustrating a sublime text. His interpretation, for the first time, attempts to capture visually Milton’s own ‘terrible’ description.
The combat between Satan and Death, who are separated at the gates of Hell by Sin, is described in Book II of Paradise Lost. It begins thus:
Before the gates there sat On either side a formidable Shape. The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair, But ended foul in many a scaly fold, Voluminous and vast – a serpent armed With mortal sting.2
This passage was called ‘sublime’ by commentators at the time for the noble ideas that it contained. For example, in his analysis of the section in the Spectator, the poet Joseph Addison admired the allegorical genealogy that Milton created as both beautiful (in its moral) and sublime (in its ideas), with the horrific realisation that Death is the product of Satan’s incestuous relationship with his daughter Sin.3 However, although Addison describes Milton’s allegory of Sin and Death as being ‘a very finished Piece in its kind’, he is critical about the characters’ place within the epic as a whole. He stops short of describing the episode itself as sublime and, together with a couple of other passages, claims them to be ‘astonishing, but not credible’.4 Credibility, as the ancient author of the Peri Hypsous the Pseudo-Longinus tells his readers, is an essential condition for the creation of the sublime.5 In contrast, Addison says that the episode which describes the combat between Gabriel and Satan is sublime, as it:
abounds with Sentiments proper for the Occasion, and suitable to the Persons of the two Speakers. Satan’s clothing himself with Terror when he prepares for the Combat is truly sublime, and at least equal to Homer’s Description of Discord celebrated by Longinus, or to that of Fame in Virgil, who are both represented with their Feet standing upon the Earth, and their Heads reaching above the Clouds.6
No doubt in part because of its medium, which, unlike the usual engravings, enabled the layering of paint and the use of colour, Hogarth’s image offers for the first time a composition that attempts to capture the atmosphere of Milton’s poem. The whole is shrouded in darkness but shot through with sparks of brightly coloured paint that emphasise details from Milton’s description – Death’s ‘dreadful dart’, ‘fatal dart’ or ‘deadly arrow’, and the lack of limbs between the bones of his insubstantial skeleton. The dramatic spotlight falls on Sin, emphasising the beauty of her upper body and making even more grotesque the serpent around her waist, the ‘Hell-hounds ... With wide Cerberean mouths’ that ‘kennel’ in her womb. Just as Sin combines the majestic and the monstrous, Satan unites elements of the heroic and the diabolic: the armoured and energetic hero has the tail and mask-like face of the devil and his shield substitutes almost completely for one of his scaly wings. This conception of Satan was later picked up by the Romantics who saw the ‘fallen angel’ as the hero of the poem. A dynamic composition in the painting has been created through the use of diagonals: the line of the arrows held by Death and Satan forms a diagonal coming down from the gate at the top right to the bottom left, and another line from the golden sky in the top left down Satan’s shield ends in the deep chasm of hell in the bottom right. Other artists who created their own versions of the episode, inspired by Hogarth’s painting, include Henry Fuseli, George Romney and James Barry.
The particular episode of Satan, Sin and Death was also isolated by Burke. In his chapter on ‘Obscurity’, Burke cites the following description of Death from Milton’s poem as quintessentially and aesthetically sublime:7
The other Shape – If shape it might be called that shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb; Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, For each seemed either – black it stood as Night, Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, And shook a dreadful dart: what seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on.8
Obscurity, according to Burke, adds to an ominous apprehension worse than confronting the fearful object itself and in his opinion there was nobody who understood this ‘secret heightening’ more than Milton. In Hogarth’s painting it is certainly the figure of Death who appears intangible beside the other figures, barely revealing his real self except through a skeleton shot through darkness. This is not true of earlier versions, where Death is a fully fleshed figure or just a skeleton. By illustrating Milton’s poetic description, Hogarth encapsulates in art both the beautiful and the sublime, which were thought at the time to be mutually exclusive.
Lydia Hamlett was Research Assistant (The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language), Tate.
Even with her late dating of the painting, Marcia Pointon is of this view; see Marcia Pointon, Milton and English Art, Manchester 1970, p.57. See also Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675–1709, London 1988, p.88.
For more on Pseudo-Longinus’s Peri Hypsous, see Lydia Hamlett,‘Longinus and the Baroque Sublime’ in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013 Tate 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk.
Lydia Hamlett, ‘Sublime Literature: William Hogarth’s Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’)’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/lydia-hamlett-sublime-literature-william-hogarths-satan-sin-and-death-a-scene-from-miltons-r1138666, accessed 27 October 2021.