William Blake’s Masterpiece Illustrations of the Book of Job (1793–1827)

Job's Comforters

Ortho­dox thinkers have not often found the answers to suf­fer­ing in the Book of Job par­tic­u­lar­ly comforting—an ear­ly scribe like­ly going so far as inter­po­lat­ing the speech of one of Job’s more Pollyan­naish friends. The gnarly meta­phys­i­cal issues raised and nev­er quite resolved strike us so pow­er­ful­ly because of the kinds of things that hap­pen to Job—unimaginable things, excru­ci­at­ing­ly painful in every respect, and almost patent­ly impos­si­ble, mark­ing them as leg­end or lit­er­ary embell­ish­ment, at least.

Behemoth Leviathan

But his ordeal is at the same time believ­able, con­sist­ing of the pains we fear and suf­fer most—loss of health, wealth, and life. Job is the kind of sto­ry we can­not turn away from because of its hor­rif­ic car-wreck nature. That it sup­pos­ed­ly ends hap­pi­ly, with Job ful­ly restored, does not erase the suf­fer­ing of the first two acts. It is a huge sto­ry, cos­mic in its scope and stress, and one of the most obvi­ous­ly mytho­log­i­cal books in the Bible, with the appear­ance not only of God and Satan as chat­ty char­ac­ters but with cameos from the mon­sters Behe­moth and Leviathan.

Job's Despair

Such a sto­ry in its entire­ty would be very dif­fi­cult to rep­re­sent visu­al­ly with­out los­ing the per­son­al psy­cho­log­i­cal impact it has on us. Few, per­haps, could real­ize it as skill­ful­ly as William Blake, who illus­trat­ed scenes from Job many times through­out his life. Blake began in the 1790s with some very detailed engrav­ings, such as that at the top of the post from 1793. He then made a series of water­col­ors for his patrons Thomas Butts and John Linell between 1805 and 1827. These—such as the plate of “Behe­moth and Leviathan” fur­ther up—give us the myth­ic scale of Job’s nar­ra­tive and also, as in “Job’s Despair,” above, the human dimen­sion.


Blake’s final illustrations—a series of 22 engraved prints pub­lished in 1826 (see a fac­sim­i­le here)—“are the cul­mi­na­tion of his long pic­to­r­i­al engage­ment with that bib­li­cal sub­ject,” writes the William Blake Archive. They are also the last set of engrav­ings he com­plet­ed before his death (his Divine Com­e­dy remained unfin­ished). These illus­tra­tions draw close­ly from his pre­vi­ous water­col­ors, but add many graph­ic design ele­ments, and more of Blake’s idio­syn­crat­ic inter­pre­ta­tion, as in the plate above, which shows us a “hor­rif­ic vision of a dev­il-god.” In the full page, below, we see Blake’s mar­gin­al gloss­es of Job’s text, includ­ing the line, right above the engrav­ing, “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an Angel of Light & his Min­is­ters into Min­is­ters of Right­eous­ness.”


Oth­er pages, like that below of Job and his friends/accusers, take a more con­ser­v­a­tive approach to the text, but still present us with a stren­u­ous visu­al read­ing in which Job’s friends appear far from sym­pa­thet­ic to his ter­ri­ble plight. It’s a very dif­fer­ent image than the one at the top of the post. We know that Blake—who strug­gled in pover­ty and anonymi­ty all his life—identified with Job, and the sto­ry influ­enced his own pecu­liar­ly alle­gor­i­cal verse. Per­haps Blake’s most famous poem, “The Tyger,” alludes to Job, sub­sti­tut­ing the “Tyger” for the Behe­moth and Leviathan.

Job Rebuked

The Job paint­ings and engrav­ings stand out among Blake’s many lit­er­ary illus­tra­tions. They have been almost as influ­en­tial to painters and visu­al artists through the years as the Book of Job itself has been on poets and nov­el­ists. These final Job engrav­ings, writes the Blake Archive, “are gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered to be Blake’s mas­ter­piece as an intaglio print­mak­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Blake’s Last Work: Illus­tra­tions for Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1827)

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Allen Gins­berg Sings the Poet­ry of William Blake (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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