Tag Archives: William Blake

Congratulations to Naomi!

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Naomi Billingsley, who writes for Agnellus Mirror sometimes as NAIB, has just had her book published. We haven’t yet had time to read it properly but thought we’d tell you about it at once, in case it sells out before you get chance to buy it.

Our friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses often point out to me what they see as ‘design’ in Creation. My reply has always been to say, yes, but designer is just too inadequate a word. It conjures up a drawing board and ruler  and compasses, whereas Blake, according to Naomi, sees God as an artist, a being bursting with loving imagination.

WT.

Here follows the review on the publisher’s website:

William Blake (1757-1827) is considered one of the most singular and brilliant talents that England has ever produced. Celebrated now for the originality of his thinking, painting and verse, he shocked contemporaries by rejecting all forms of organized worship even while adhering to the truth of the Bible.

But how did he come to equate Christianity with art? How did he use images and paint to express those radical and prophetic ideas about religion which he came in time to believe? And why did he conceive of Christ himself as an artist: in fact, as the artist, par excellence?

These are among the questions which Naomi Billingsley explores in her subtle and wide-ranging new study in art, religion and the history of ideas. Suggesting that Blake expresses through his representations of Jesus a truly distinctive theology of art, and offering detailed readings of Blake’s paintings and biblical commentary, she argues that her subject thought of Christ as an artist-archetype. Blake’s is thus a distinctively ‘Romantic’ vision of art in which both the artist and his saviour fundamentally change the way that the world is perceived.

From King’s College London, where Naomi completed her MA:

Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester. Her research is at the intersection of the histories of Christianity and art in Britain, especially in the Romantic period. Her current project ‘The Formation and Reception of the Macklin Bible’ examines an important illustrated Bible, published between 1791 and 1800.

Naomi completed her PhD at the University of Manchester (2012-2015) on the figure of Christ in William Blake’s pictorial works. She was then Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester, and taught Art History at Birkbeck, University of London.

Naomi is a graduate of the MA in Christianity and the Arts (2011) and holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge (Magdalene, 2010). 

The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination
Naomi Billingsley

I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2018.

 

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23 April: The Holy of Holies.

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The Holy of Holies refers of course to the innermost chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem – and before that in the tent that went through the desert with the Israelites. Blake reminded us that God is present in a grain of sand; here is Chesterton meeting him on a Spring morning. This follows on from yesterday’s posting because these cowslips are growing in pastureland, where sheep will safely graze later in the year. We were told that the farmer seeded the field with wild flowers. Thank you to him! And Chesterton was rather fond of Saint George, whose feast falls today.

‘Elder father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst thou tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?

‘Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds,
Like an elfin’s granary,

‘Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.’

‘God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity—
Adonai Elohim.’

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10 November: This Wreck.

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Henry James’s true country, Azar Nafisi assures us, was the imagination, in a Blakean sense, meaning the life of the spirit.  At the start of the Great War, James wrote to Rhoda Broughton:

Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I am sick beyond cure to have lived to see it. You  and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that these long years we had seen civilisation grow and the worst became possible.

From ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi, Harper Perennial, 2007, p216.

We must remind ourselves of the danger of anaesthetising the imagination too much, to the extent where those caught up in fighting are merely ‘little brown men killing little brown men’, as one US General memorably said. No doubt he was making the world safer, in his own mind. But as Blake reminds us:

Caiaphas was in his own mind

A benefactor to mankind.

The Everlasting Gospel.

We are brothers and sisters of the same dust, the dust of Earth, the dust of the stars, formed by the breath of God.

WT.

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August 22: I is for Ironbridge.

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Ironbridge: the name says it. All those glorious structures like the Forth Bridge, Sydney Harbour, the Howrah, the Golden Gate and the bridge at Victoria Falls, owe their ancestry to this iron bridge over the Severn in Shropshire.

A bold venture to build a bridge of cast iron so high above the river in 1779. The beams were cast on site since transporting them would have been difficult. But would it work? Abraham Darby must have been an excellent mathematician, blessed with patience to check each step of his calculations and each stage of the casting, the building of foundations and assembly of the bridge. Here it stands today, carefully maintained, like the Forth Bridge and all those others. My grandfather, a Shropshire lad, took me to see it aged about five; it impresses me more now than it did then, unlike so many things.

Crossing the river here safely was a dream made real by Darby and the men who dug his coal, smelted, transported and cast his iron; masons, surveyors, painters. He and they had to trust in the laws of physics as they understood them. The people who keep the bridge alive –  it is still open to pedestrians – apply the physics and chemistry they understand to prevent rust, metal fatigue and erosion.

The dirt and hard labour of the Industrial Revolution have gone, leaving the Severn Gorge free from dark Satanic Mills. But if we are to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land we need an understanding of what we are about, and how to ensure dirt, fatigue, rust and erosion do not stop us working together.

God, come to our aid, Lord, make haste to help us!

Laudaato Si’!

MMB.

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August 18: An Appreciation of Francis Thompson by W.H. Davies.

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Francis Thompson turned up again after I’d put his series to bed, so I’ll share this now. W. H. Davies was another poet who lived on the streets, though he was to find friendship and marriage and a long life span.

In this Davies uses his memories of seafaring and tramping to imagine Thompson’s life before he was welcomed into the life of the Meynell family. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head when he was travelling the dusty roads of Palestine. Can we see him in the homeless people we meet in the street? How best to give them bread and not stones?

Francis Thompson by W. H. Davies

Thou hadst no home, and thou couldst see
In every street the windows’ light:
Dragging thy limbs about all night,
No window kept a light for thee.

However much thou wert distressed,
Or tired of moving, and felt sick,
Thy life was on the open deck—
Thou hadst no cabin for thy rest.

Thy barque was helpless ‘neath the sky,
No pilot thought thee worth his pains
To guide for love or money gains—
Like phantom ships the rich sailed by.

Thy shadow mocked thee night and day,
Thy life’s companion, it alone;
It did not sigh, it did not moan,
But mocked thy moves in every way.

In spite of all, the mind had force,
And, like a stream whose surface flows
The wrong way when a strong wind blows,
It underneath maintained its course.

Oft didst thou think thy mind would flower
Too late for good, as some bruised tree
That blooms in Autumn, and we see
Fruit not worth picking, hard and sour.

Some poets feign their wounds and scars.
If they had known real suffering hours,
They’d show, in place of Fancy’s flowers,
More of Imagination’s stars.

So, if thy fruits of Poesy
Are rich, it is at this dear cost—
That they were nipt by Sorrow’s frost,
In nights of homeless misery.

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July 2: Readings from Mary Webb I. Shut in?

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It does not matter how shut in we are. Opportunity for wide experience is of small account in this as in other things; it is depth that brings understanding and life. Dawn, seen through a sick woman’s window, however narrow, pulses with the same fresh wonder as it does over the whole width of the sea. A branch of flushed wild-apple brings the same joy as the mauve trumpet-flower of the tropics. One violet is as sweet as an acre of them. And it often happens – as if by a kindly law of compensation – that those who have only one violet find the way through its narrow, purple gate into the land of God, while many who walk over dewy carpets of them do not so much as know that there is a land or a way.

Mary Webb is drawing from the same spring as William Blake:

To see 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.

We might remember those last two lines next time we are at Mass.

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8 January: Open Heart, Open Mind, I: Judging according to God.

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A reflection from Fr Andrew SDC 1869-1946. Fr Andrew was a pioneering Anglican Franciscan in the East End of London; more of his reflections will appear during the year.

Whereas the world judges people by their actions, and on the  whole is right to do so, God judges the actions by the people who do them. The world would have said of the widow, ‘She only gave two mites’; Our Lord said of the two mites, ‘They were given by a widow who had nothing else, they are worth millions.’ The world was shocked when Mary Magdalene kissed our Lord’s feet. The world said, ‘He let a woman kiss him.’ Our Lord said, ‘The kiss came from a penitent, and had more love in it than all the banquets of the rich Pharisees put together.’

Saint Luke records Jesus’ words:

All these have of their abundance cast into the offerings of God: but she of her want, hath cast in all the living that she had.  Luke 21:4

Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet. Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less. And he said to her: Thy sins are forgiven thee.                Luke 7:45-48

Mary Magdalene Washing Christ’s Feet, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Image released for non-commercial use. 

WT

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21 December: O come, Thou Day-Spring

Today is the shortest day of the year, up here in the Northern Hemisphere. From today, the hours of daylight gradually increase, as people were well aware before the mixed blessings of electric light allowed us to forget we live in a world we only like to think we control.

The Church has long prayed on this day the antiphon ‘O Oriens’:

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

This verse of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is not a direct translation but captures the spirit of the original, especially in lines three and four.

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O come,Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Of course we want the light, and would be far more lost in a power cut than our ancestors were in days gone by. And we pray ‘God from God, Light from Light’ in the Creed, perhaps without thinking too much about it.

For a surprising view, let’s turn to our old friend, William Blake; Auguries of Innocence includes these lines, which I leave you to digest.

 

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

MMB.

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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.

NAIB

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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.

NAIB

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