We tend to think that William Blake’s most visionary and radical art was created later in his career, particularly as part of his illustrations to Dante, and that his biblical paintings around 1800 were more conservative. In fact, several of his wildest images were put onto paper for his loyal patron Thomas Butts, as part of Blake’s illustrations to the Bible shortly after 1800. This article examines those, Blake’s extraordinary watercolour paintings of the book of Revelation between about 1800 and 1809.
The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne (c 1803-5) starts this sequence in narrative order, referring to the book of Revelation, chapter 4 verses 2-11. In the King James version, this is a vision of the ‘hereafter’:
And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
I have already noted that the rainbow is reversed, the ‘whirlwind’ effects, and the multiple eyes, in this quite literal depiction of the Bible.
Following this is the painting of Death on a Pale Horse (c 1800) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, which I do not show, although it refers to Revelation chapter 6 verse 8.
Angel of the Revelation (c 1803-05) is also known by its biblical reference, as And the Angel Which I Saw Lifted up His Hand to Heaven. This refers to Revelation chapter 10 verses 1-6:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth, and cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.
And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (c 1803) in the Brooklyn Museum then depicts Revelation chapter 12 verses 1-4:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
This is one of Blake’s best-known visionary images, a unique chimeral beast with body parts drawn from human, dragon, and caprine sources.
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (c 1805) in The National Gallery of Art in Washington continues with Revelation chapter 12 verses 12-17:
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
The narrative proximity with the previous painting and the next two make these four works almost a graphic story in themselves, as might be seen in a modern graphic novel, for example.
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (c 1805) continues with Revelation chapter 13 verses 1, 2 and 7:
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
The Number of the Beast is 666 (c 1805) moves on to another familiar section of the book of Revelation, in chapter 13 verses 11, 12 and 18:
And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
This completes the sequence of four paintings sometimes known as Blake’s Great Red Dragon series.
The Whore of Babylon (1809) was probably the last of this sequence to be painted by Blake, and refers to the well-known section of Revelation chapter 17 verses 1-4:
And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
Sadly, Blake’s purple has been lost as a result of fading. The abominations and filthiness of the whore’s cup flow out in a stream of naked miniature figures, which fall down to the ground by her.
The Angel Michael Binding Satan (“He Cast him into the Bottomless Pit, and Shut him up”) (c 1805) skips ahead to Revelation chapter 20 verses 1-3:
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
The full sequence then concludes with The River of Life (c 1805), which refers to Revelation chapter 22 verses 1-2.
The book of Revelation, with its vivid and phantasmagoric scenes of the apocalypse, has always been a fertile story for an artist’s imagination. But I know of no series of paintings which compares with Blake’s in its masterly, closely-detailed, and very literal account. It inspired some of Blake’s most outstanding and visionary works of art, which even now have not been matched.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.