William Blake’s 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy Collected in a Beautiful Book from Taschen

In his book on the Tarot, Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky describes the Her­mit card as rep­re­sent­ing mid-life, a “pos­i­tive cri­sis,” a mid­dle point in time; “between life and death, in a con­tin­u­al cri­sis, I hold up my lit lamp — my con­scious­ness,” says the Her­mit, while con­fronting the unknown. The fig­ure recalls the image of Dante in the open­ing lines of the Divine Com­e­dy. In Mandelbaum’s trans­la­tion at Columbi­a’s Dig­i­tal Dante, we see evi­dent sim­i­lar­i­ties:

When I had jour­neyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself with­in a shad­owed for­est,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that sav­age for­est, dense and dif­fi­cult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hard­ly more severe!

This is not to say the lit­er­ary Dante and occult Her­meti­cism are his­tor­i­cal­ly relat­ed; only they emerged from the same matrix, a medieval Catholic Europe steeped in mys­te­ri­ous sym­bols. The Her­mit is a por­tent, mes­sen­ger, and guide, an aspect rep­re­sent­ed by the poet Vir­gil, whom William Blake — in 102 water­col­or illus­tra­tions made between 1824 and 1827 — dressed in blue to rep­re­sent spir­it, while Dante wears his usu­al red — the col­or, in Blake’s sys­tem, of expe­ri­ence.

Blake did not read the Divine Com­e­dy as a medieval Catholic believ­er but as a vision­ary 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish artist and poet who invent­ed his own reli­gion. He “taught him­self Ital­ian in order to be able to read the orig­i­nal” and had a “ com­plex rela­tion­ship” with the text, writes Dante schol­ar Sil­via De San­tis.

His inter­pre­ta­tion drew from a “wide­spread ‘selec­tive use’” of the poet,” dat­ing from 16th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish Protes­tant read­ings which saw Dante’s satir­i­cal skew­er­ing of cor­rupt indi­vid­u­als as indict­ments of the insti­tu­tions they rep­re­sent — the church and state for which Blake had no love.

Approach­ing the project at the end of his life, not the mid­dle, Blake drew pri­mar­i­ly on themes that Dante schol­ar Robin Kil­patrick describes as a “search­ing analy­sis of all of the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic fac­tors that had destroyed Flo­rence .… Hell is a diag­no­sis of what, in so many ways, can prove to be divi­sive in human nature. Sin, for Dante, is not trans­gres­sion of an ordi­nary kind … against some law… it’s a trans­gres­sion against love.”

Blake died before he could fin­ish the series, com­mis­sioned by his friend John Lin­nell in 1824. He had intend­ed to engrave all 102 illus­tra­tions, con­ceived, he wrote, “dur­ing a fort­night’s ill­ness in bed.” You can see all of his stun­ning water­col­ors online here and find them lov­ing­ly repro­duced in a new book pub­lished by Taschen with essays by Blake and Dante experts, help­ing con­tex­tu­al­ize two poets who found a com­mon lan­guage across a span of 500 years. The book, orig­i­nal­ly priced at $150, now sells for $40. A beau­ti­ful XL edi­tion sells at a high­er price.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rarely-Seen Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Are Now Free Online, Cour­tesy of the Uffizi Gallery

A Dig­i­tal Archive of the Ear­li­est Illus­trat­ed Edi­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1487–1568)

Explore Divine Com­e­dy Dig­i­tal, a New Dig­i­tal Data­base That Col­lects Sev­en Cen­turies of Art Inspired by Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

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

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