‘Re-engraved time after time
Ever in their youthful prime;
My designs unchanged remain;
Time may rage, but rage in vain;
For above time’s troubled fountains
On the great Atlantic Mountains,
In my golden house on high
There they shine eternally.’
“For a Picture of the Last Judgement” by William Blake
Naturally, I gravitated towards William Blake’s artwork, specifically to the engravings in his Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825), because they demonstrate his ability tell a magnificent story and communicate feelings so grand in the space of a single page. Blake was born in 1757 and died within a few years of his creating his famous engravings for the Book of Job. Blake and his work have stood the test of time with various books written about him and artworks made to honor his illustrations, especially his piece “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” (Plate 14 in his Illustrations of the Book of Job). Blake was a visionary who wrote poems and made art all the while revealing his genius as he expressed his talent. A radical artist who recreated an important story from the Bible, Blake visualized the story of Job in a series of imaginative compositions.
As the story goes, Job was a faithful servant of God who tested Job by taking away his livestock, his servants, and all of his children. As Job was being tested, he started to contemplate the difference between life and death, an important theme that runs throughout Blake’s engravings. That said, we need to keep in mind that Blake’s images for the Book of Job are “essentially works of art, and not mere proselytizing diagrams or emblems,” because they carry stories along with them (Lister, 595). Each print was carefully crafted. Blake did not conform to typical ideals of success and believed “that greatest of all blessings (is) a strong imagination” (Lister, 595). Being able to see Blake’s masterpieces in the Special Collections Research Center and in the SUArt Galleries, is such a privilege. For the four years I have attended Syracuse University, I never knew we had such hidden gems such as Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job.
Blake created his illustrations for the Book of Job between 1819 and 1823. The twenty-two brilliant prints began as simple illustrations, which were made into “large watercolor drawings for Thomas Butts around 1805” (Wimer, 8). Inspired in part by Melencolia I (1514) made by Albrecht Dürer, the acclaimed German Renaissance artist, Blake’s compositions are similarly packed with powerful visual motifs that deftly convey human emotions like misery. Another image by Dürer titled, The Whore of Babylon, from the Apocalypse (1498), reminded me of a print in Blake’s Book of Job. Here, Dürer grapples with good and evil, just as Blake does in his engraving “When the Morning Stars Sang Together,” which I will discuss later on.
Amazingly enough Blake’s plates for the Book of Job are “pure engraving” and were “cut with the graver entirely on copper without the aid of Aquafortis” a chemical that aids the engraving greatly by helping to corrode the metal (Wimer, 8). Every scholarly discussion I found about William Blake’s Book of Job emphasized that Blake had faith in himself and his imagination so much that he “engraved upon the copper without a previous drawing” (Wimer, 8-9). The borders and all of the text in the engravings were made in dry point needle, which I cannot imagine doing without a previous drawing. Blake’s lines were not perfect, but they reveal his unique approach to making art.
The Book of Job was different from Blake’s other projects because he was able to fully present his vision in all of its brilliance. Blake had finally “achieved effects of delicacy and brilliance, of richness and vigor,” all which emerged from the art of engraving, but which were extremely difficult to master (Binyon, 7). I found the story behind the engravings in the Book of Job to be really interesting, especially because some scholars speculate that Blake was creating a parallel between Job’s story and the story of his own life. Blake viewed Job’s story as “the account of a man’s inward struggle and triumph; the conflict between his indwelling Good, and Evil, powers” (Binyon, 66). I feel as though this is a narrative about what it means to truly be human, to grapple with the idea that we have both evil and good inherently within ourselves. There are two main themes, the idea that as humans we must walk the path between good and evil while at the same time knowing divine justice is at our side.
A painstaking investment for the enlightened Blake, the Book of Job seems to have been fundamentally centered on the idea of faith. According to the Bible, “Job is rewarded for having sustained his faith under tribulation,” but Blake put his own spin on the story (Vaughan, 66). Blake needed to create a wider understanding and bring his imagination to the table, as he always did. Blake added to the classic story originally from the Bible that “Job was being recompensed because, after tribulation, he now understood the nature of faith in a more profound manner” (Vaughan, 66). I love that idea; the thought that we must have faith in the very idea of faith itself in life to be rewarded. We have to accept life and its many possibilities, trusting in our faith and the forces of nature.
I would now like to focus on Plate 14 in the Illustrations of the Book of Job titled “When the Morning Stars Sang Together,” the original drawing for which resides in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. A beautiful composition with dramatic contrasts in light and shadow, the image depicts angel-like figures singing, their hands raised, and their figures bathed in light. This illustration comes after the scene in which Job asked God to appear and explain why he deserved all the evils that ruined him. Here, God, whose figure dominates the composition, reenacts creating the world, while Job and his wife and other worshippers kneel below. Here, we also see all of the elements that were previously banished from Job’s life, being restored, many of which are found in the border. Light and land are restored, as well as the light Job has been missing together with all of the animals that he had lost. The morning stars are depicted amongst twinkling stars; however, they take the form of angels who grace the top of the illustration. The mystic in Blake emerges in this piece, with the cosmos intertwining with nature. Along the border to the right we see the words, “And God made two great lights,” with images of the moon and sun. Job represents a test of life and faith, a trial which will ultimately result in greater mindfulness (Vaughan, 67).
Additionally, there are details like the crescent crowned woman (Selene, goddess of the moon) in control of two vicious looking snakes who can be seen beneath God, under his wingspan to the right within the image, and across from her is Helios, the sun god, shown with four white horses. These figures with their accompanying symbols are inserted to enlighten the viewer about Job’s newfound knowledge of life. I find it beautiful yet haunting to see the snakes opposite the horses, because white horses can symbolize death (by acting as the free spirit that can be corrupted by evil and darkness) in Christianity while snakes symbolize the continuation and renewal of life. Not only does Job grapple with life and death in the same image, he gives us a complex image that focuses on the inner workings of good and evil.
Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job are strongly linked to Romanticism, rousing our emotions and making us question our understanding of time, space, and our place among it all. Blake was a spiritual person and exemplified a Romantic who was far ahead of his time. Referring to the Book of Job, John Ruskin remarked that Blake was “among ‘the highest…in certain characters of imagination and expression” with an excellent “mode of obtaining certain effects of light,” and went so far as to say that in terms of “expressing conditions of glaring and flickering light, Blake is greater than Rembrandt” (Wimer, 8-9). This was high praise indeed. Ruskin was right. Blake was a revolutionary for his time. He was timeless then as he is now.
Blake has become one of my biggest inspirations because he followed his own spirit and marched to his own beat, without looking back or questioning the trust he placed in himself. As an artist, I struggle to trust myself while grappling with my understanding of what success looks like in a world full of talent. Blake has taught me, as he taught so many throughout time, to follow my own imagination and never to stifle the guiding light within my spirit, which will shine forever if I let it.
“…a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand.
And eternity in an hour”
“To See a World,” by William Blake
Today, in our current society, those who stand out are celebrated and paid attention to. We admire the vision and eternal spirit that William Blake had; he was one in a million. In Blake’s own words, “time may rage, but rage in vain,” for his extraordinary corpus of work would outlast time, his “designs” would “unchanged remain” (Butterworth, 6). Blake’s engravings were one of a kind, and his attitude towards life has inspired me in many ways. I think most of all, William Blake has inspired me to trust myself more than my peers, my fears, or my society because if you put your soul into your artwork then you will live forever.