Tag Archives: Bible in art

30 September – William Blake’s ‘The Agony in the Garden’

The Agony in the Garden c.1799-1800 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05894

William Blake, The Agony in the Garden, c.1799-1800. Tempera on iron. Tate Britain. Image released under a Creative Commons license.

 

Blake’s The Agony in the Garden is a highly original take on this scene from Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke 22:41-45, Christ kneels, praying to the Father to ‘remove this cup from me’; an angel appears to strengthen him, and as he continues to pray, ‘his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’. Artists depicting this subject are usually faithful to the details of Christ’s kneeling and the presence of an angel (sometimes more than one is included), often holding a cup.

In Blake’s version, Christ is kneeling and his eyes are open, but he is falling backwards and being caught by an angel swooping down from above. There is a strong sense of intimacy in the interaction between Christ and the angel – the direct alignment of their faces creates a mirroring, and the embracing reach of the angel and Christ’s open arms are offers of union.

Our eyes may not immediately tune in to notice the sleeping disciples in the shadows among the trees in the background. They have been relegated to this place of semi-darkness in stark contrast to the angel who appears in answer to Jesus’ prayers.

The strangeness of Blake’s interpretation of this scene might emphasise the question of how we are to read the angel in this story? I wonder if Blake has presented us with a (rather unorthodox) depiction of the Trinity, with the angel representing the Father, responding to Jesus’ prayer, and the strange blast of red light above it as the Holy Spirit.

What we certainly have is a powerful image of an angel as a positive, sustaining presence in answer to a prayer.

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29 September – William Blake’s ‘Angel Appearing to Zacharias’

William Blake, The Angel Appearing to Zacharias. c.1799-1800. Pen, ink, tempera and glue on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image released under the Metropolitan Museum’s Open Access for Scholarly Comment scheme.

 

The pictures posted today and tomorrow are from another series of pictures of biblical subjects painted by William Blake for the civil servant Thomas Butts. Before Blake made Butts the watercolours of which we saw one yesterday, he painted fifty small temperas of biblical subjects.

Within this group of paintings, Blake’s Nativity pictures seem to act as a distinctive sub-group with a strong sense of series – an unfolding narrative which reflects the artist’s conception of Christ’s identity as the source of Vision and prophecy. Christ’s advent in Jesus is part of an ongoing process of revelation.

The New Testament sequence in Blake’s biblical paintings opens with The Angel Gabriel appearing to Zacharias. This is an unusual subject: I have not come across other examples by Blake’s contemporaries, but it is possible that Blake had seen prints of Old Master versions such as Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Tornabuoni chapel, Florence.

The angel is bringing news of the birth of John the Baptist, the prophet of Christ and a figure with whom Blake himself identified (because Blake saw himself as a prophet).

Blake strips away the temple architecture which tends to dominate images of this subject and contrasts the priestly trappings of Zacharias and the temple with the simple white garment of the angel – the herald of the prophet who points to the blast of light coming from above.

Zacharias doubts Gabriel’s prophecy and is struck dumb in punishment until the child is born (Luke 1:18-20), demonstrating that doubt hinders prophecy, although this blast of light outshines the menorah (the seven branched candle-stick) and the fire on the altar. Blake, who saw angels in a tree on Peckham Rye, and on the beach at Felpham uses this story to encourage his viewer to trust in the messages of angels.

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28 September – William Blake’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’

William Blake, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, c.1799-1807. Pen and grey ink and watercolour. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Image released under a Creative Commons license for non-commercial use.

 

William Blake’s (1757-1827) watercolour of Jacob’s Ladder is one of about eighty watercolours which Blake made between about 1800 and 1806 for his loyal patron, the civil servant Thomas Butts (more of Blake’s works for Butts follow in tomorrow and Friday). In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream in which he sees a staircase between heaven and earth with figures ascending and descending on it.

 

We do not know the precise date of this watercolour, but it may well have been inspired by a vision which Blake had shortly after he moved from London to Felpham, West Sussex in 1800, which he described in a poem addressed to Ann Flaxman, wife of the sculptor John Flaxman:

 

Away to Sweet Felpham for Heaven is there

The Ladder of Angels descends thro the air

On the Turret its spiral does softly descend

Thro’ the village then winds at My Cot it does end

You stand in the village & look up to heaven

The precious stones glitter on flights seventy seven

And My Brother is there & My Friend & Thine

Descend & Ascend with the Bread & the Wine

(‘To my dear Friend Mrs Anna Flaxman’)

 

The poem suggests that Blake felt that there was a connection between heaven and earth in Felpham. Having only known the smoggy air of London for the first 43 years of his life, one can well imagine that Blake felt that the veil between heaven and earth was thinner in Felpham – the kind of place one might encounter angels.

 

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