Advent in Art 2002 - Blake's 'Descent of Peace'

Andrew Rockell
Sunday, 15 December 2002


Andrew Rockell

Advent in Art Series 2002: Icon: 3 

William Blake: The Descent of Peace, 1815, ( Huntington Library, California ). 

15 December 2002


[The original speech was made without notes. What I’ve written here is a transcript after the fact, i.e. most of what I can remember saying.  I’ve added footnotes in case they help. Bibliographies follow at the end].


“It was the winter wild,

When the Heav’n-born child

All meanly wrapped in the rude manger lies.”

-         John Milton, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1629).


“The deep of winter came;

What time the secret child,

Descended thro’ the orient gates of the eternal day.

War ceas’d, & all the troops like shadows fled to their abodes.”

-         William Blake, Europe : A Prophecy (1794).



  “ For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne . . . "  - Wisdom of  Solomonm 18.14-16, Holy Bible: Authorised King James with  Apocrypha

The painting I have chosen is by William Blake, based on a poem by John Milton. Milton ’s poem is called On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity [1]. Blake’s painting is called The Descent of Peace [2]. The Descent of Peace is the first of a group of six paintings Blake made to illustrate Milton ’s poem. Each painting takes a different aspect in the poem. Each painting takes issue with Milton ’s poem from a different angle.


    Blake thinks Milton is terrific. He thinks Milton is the last of the Hebrew prophets. But he also thinks Milton is the biggest of the English Puritans. Blake is constantly trying to separate the two out from each other, trying to knock Milton the Puritan out to let Milton the prophet step forward. He continues this process in this painting.

            I only recently discovered this painting for myself. I chose it because, while I’m kind of familiar with a couple of Blake pictures, I still found this picture a bit freakish and somewhat unsettling.  I wanted to find out why.


            The stable is not just a stable. The stable is a metaphor. In Milton ’s poem, when Christ takes on the incarnation, Christ takes on “this darksome house of mortal clay.” We could translate this into: ‘this dim body of dirt.’ But the human body here is given the metaphor of a house. In Blake’s painting then, the Biblical stable is the human body [3]
            We get a sense of Blake sign-posting this metaphoric play between the body and the house on the right-hand side of the stable, where the three curves of the Gothic arch echo the three major curves in the bending Joseph’s outline. The echo also signals Blake’s sense of space as continuous with, and responsive to, human form.

            In both Milton and Blake, the house is also a metaphor for the world [4]. We are looking then, at a stable that is the human body as the body of the world. A ‘world-stable’ [5].     

            Above the stable is the very strange figure of the Angel of Peace. She is the personification of an idea from the Old Testament prophets and, curiously, from Roman poetry, that at some time in the future, a world saviour would appear, a divine-human figure, who would trample a snake and usher in world-peace [6]. And there does seem to have been something of an international cease-fire about the time of the birth of Christ [7].

            In Milton ’s poem, she wafts gently out of the sky, waving her myrtle wand. In Blake’s painting, she’s rocketing out of the sky.  She’s a stuka-bombing, kamikaze nose-dive of an angel hurtling towards the roof of the world. Blake’s definition of peace is somewhat different to that of most people. The common understanding of peace is of an absence of conflict. For Blake, this is far too passive. And it’s ugly. It means a bunch of isolated egos, separate from each other and leaving each other alone only because the hostility is latent and hasn’t broken out – yet.  What Blake wants is a vigorous interaction of strong, independent identities. Hence, this athletic, acrobatic figure of peace, perilling headfirst towards the roof with her arms outstretched ready to hug the world.

            Inside the stable and back-left, are two oxen. The usual story with animals in Nativity paintings is to have an ox and an ass. These figures come from Isaiah 1.3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” [8]. Tradition, weirdly, has made it so that the ox represents the Gentiles, and the ass, the Jews [9]. I do not know why. But Blake here has two oxen. No ‘ass’ – no ‘Jews.’

            What is he doing? Is this an attack of anti-Semitism? I don’t think so. I’m guessing that Blake is doing at least two things, and both of them somewhat contradictory, as is Blake’s wont.

            First, I think he’s saying that, at the birth of Christi, the Biblical religion shifts, is transformed, from being the exclusive property of Jewish nationalism, as if was for the Old Testament priests, and has now become a universal religion, available to all, as it was for the Old Testament prophets. In the tussle between the prophets and the priests, Blake is going to come down on the side of the prophets every time.

            The second thing is that he has represented the Gentiles by the oxen, but (visually) cut them off at the head. Gentile heads, Gentile thought-forms, Gentile intellectualism – and the dominant form of Gentile thinking is Greek philosophy. And Blake thinks Milton reads far too much of that [10]. So, in his staging of the scene here, he’s cut the Gentile ‘oxen’ ff at the head, and put them up the back of the stable, displacing them with Hebrew prophets.

            Where might the prophets be? All we’ve got, front left of the stable, is the family of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. We have Elizabeth, her son John (the Baptist), and her husband Zechariah. Human figures in Blake’s pictures are usually operating on several levels at once. So, we can guess that Zechariah will not just be the New Testament chap married to Elizabeth ; he will also be the Book of Zechariah, here in human form [11]. Zechariah is one of the Old Testament prophets who foretell the coming of Christ. He is also the book that comes jus before the Book of Malachi. Malachi isn’t a name – it’s a job-description. The word malachi means ‘messenger.’ So, ‘Book of Malachi’ means ‘Book of the Messenger.’ It’s about a messenger, one who will herald in the Christ, an Elijah figure who, for the Christian community, will be John the Baptist. Looking at the figures of Zechariah and John the Baptist, we can then read them as the books of Zechariah and Malachi, both here in human form [12]. Two Hebrew prophets displace two figures of Greek philosophy. Blake is doing in his staging of the picture what he is doing in his criticism of Milton .

Continuing the theme of the redemption of femininity, we find the figure of the nude female at the base of the picture, lying in the snow. She is Nature. In Milton ’s Ode, she is rather highly sexed. She and sun get it together at least once every twenty-four hours. That is, until the appearance of Christ. She then gets embarrassed (“It was no season then for her/ To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour”) and she gets dressed (“Hide(s) her guilty front with innocent snow” [14]            One of the functions of Hebrew prophecy, for Blake, is the restoration of the relationship between the sexes. Instead of splitting women into ‘madonnas’ or ‘whores,’ super-elevated above the human, or reduced to less-than-human as property, or ‘function,’ Blake aims to restore women to the same register as males [13]. So, in the picture, the Hebrew prophets form a backdrop to Elizabeth, who takes the front of the stage.

            For Milton , a frozen sexuality is a good thing – it’s the first step towards chastity, which, for Milton , is one of the highest virtues. As it would be. Milton is a Puritan, and he’s committed to the cause. For Blake though, this is an outrage. If you’re going to redeem Nature, you’re going to redeem sexuality at the same time. And you’re going to do both if you’re going to have anything to do with an incarnation.

            So, Blake removes the snow from Nature and faces her towards, instead of away, from the action.  Nature is frontally positioned toward the appearance of the Christ.

            Another reason for having Zechariah the prophet present in the picture – as there is no evidence that the New Testament Zechariah turned up at the stable – is a line from Zechariah’s book: “I will bring forth my servant … and I will removed the iniquity (‘guilt’) of that land in one day” [15] Here we have the bringing forth of the servant – the birth of Christ, and the land – Nature – having her guilt removed. The ‘one day,’ of course, is Christmas.

                        Notice also that Nature is lying on her right side. I’m guessing that this is an allusion to one of Blake’s favourite Old Testament prophets – Ezekiel, who did rather a lot of the same thing [16]. The implication here is that femininity, sexuality, physicality and Nature are not things to be shunned, but are, rather, themselves implicitly, intrinsically, and innately prophetic. These things might even be the raw material of prophecy.

            Nature is looking up past the stable to the descending Angel of Peace who is eyeballing her right back. They’re happy to see each other. The angel stretches out her myrtle wand towards nature and her other arm in the general direction of Zechariah (the furthest point left). And so we close a loop on the redemption of Nature in which she can, in fact, face the appearance of Christ, naked and not ashamed.

            Moving back into the stable, we find that Mary appears to have fallen over. The usual interpretation of this is that she has simply collapsed after giving birth [17]. Well, maybe … Maybe she’s fallen over in shock at the sight of a flying Jesus.

            I think it’s more likely that Blake is doing something of his usual practice, which is to literalise metaphors and visualise puns. If Mary has fallen over, it is because she has ‘fallen,’ that is, that she has had an affair. Joseph really is ‘not the father’ and Mary’s in trouble.

            At this point, Blake has gone beyond criticising Milton and is now taking on the writers of the Gospels. Matthew and Luke really do go to town on this idea of the ‘virgin’ birth. And they do so based on the Septuagint - Greek translation of the Old Testament – and the Greek translation of Isaiah in particular. Isaiah 7.14 “And a virgin shall conceive.” ‘Virgin’ in the Greek is parthenos, which is a word that means ‘young woman.’ It can include the idea of virginity, but that is an aspect of the word, and not its totality. What the Greek is translating is a Hebrew word almah, which means, again, simply ‘young woman.’ Isaiah’s word does not mean ‘virgin.’ The word has no interest in degrees of sexual experience. If Isaiah had wanted to specify anything as extraordinary as a specifically ‘virgin’ birth, he would have used a very specific word – betulah, which does mean ‘virgin.’ That is not a word that Isaiah used or chose. So, what Matthew and Luke develop into cardinal points of the story (and ultimately, of doctrine) is an accident of the translation of this passage into Greek [18]. Apparently, this mistake is something that Jewish leaders in the first century kept trying to point out to the early Christian community, but the Christians had already fixated on the idea of the birth being ‘virgin’ pretty early on [19].

            Blake is not being shocking or disrespectful or antagonistic, here. He is simply trying to be as faithful as possible to the Hebrew of the Old Testament and to remove, wherever possible, the distorting influence of Greek thought, wherever it happens to turn up.

            Secondly, Blake is also importing back into the  Gospel story a major theme of the Old Testament, and that is the forgiveness of the adulteress, the forgiveness of the ‘harlot.’ This theme is a major one in Jeremiah [20], in Ezekiel [21] and in Hosea. And spectacularly, in Hosea, where the prophet marries a prostitute and gets into difficulties. What is significant for Blake about this theme is, at the least, that it embodies the relationship between God and , where God is the long-suffering husband and , the wayward wife. It’s a major, profound, and very tender image of the Old Testament, and Blake is bringing it back into the Gospel story in order to make that story more fully and deeply continuous with the Old Testament.

            In one of Blake’s own poems, Jerusalem , there is a domestic spat between Joseph and Mary, over this exact issue. Mary pulls this great line, like ‘If I hadn’t sinned, how could I possibly experience the joy of your forgiveness?” Joseph’s never heard this one before, falls for it completely, gives in and forgives her. Mary spontaneously bursts into a river and flows off singing happily [22].

   What Mary has done in this instance is not so much manipulative as it is theological. Mary is using a traditional theological argument called the felix culpa. Felix culpa is a Latin phrase that means something like a ‘fortunate fall’ or a ‘happy guilt’ [23]. Traditionally, it is used in relation to Even. Eve’s sin triggers the Fall, but the Fall becomes the occasion of God’s grace, and, at some distance, Eve will ‘give birth’ to the Messiah (c.f. the doctrine of the protoevangelion or ‘first gospel’ in Genesis 3.15).
            Here then, Mary is the new Eve, the second Eve. Mary’s sin, as a poetic repetition of Eve’s, leads to a fall, which becomes the occasion of grace from Joseph, embodying the weight of that Old Testament theme of God’s relationship to , and Mary gives birth to the Messiah.


            Notice the colour of Mary’s clothes. She is wearing white. The traditional colour for Mary is blue – the colour of the sky, that which is ‘out of reach,’ ‘out of touch.’ Fair enough for the idea of virginity or chastity. Here she is wearing white, which I’m thinking is the colour not so much of forgiveness as the experience of forgiveness. Compare Isaiah 1.18 “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; thought they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” The colour blue is transposed over onto Joseph instead. Which, as Pamela Dunbar observes, is fitting, as he is the one who has been faithful in the relationship [24].

            Joseph and Mary are pretty locked onto each other with their gazes. They form a self-enclosed unit, staring directly at each other.

            Joseph and Mary both wear red haloes. Usually haloes are gold, or yellow, or white. These red haloes indicate their passion for each other - a passion reborn through an act of forgiveness. This may also be another reason for Mary collapsing – in sheer relief: Joseph has forgiven her and is continuing (another visual pun) to ‘support’ her.

            Now we come to the extraordinary figure of the flying Jesus. What on earth is Blake doing? This scene is not in the Gospels. Is Blake trying to de-literalise the Gospel story and make it more like myth (as we have in the Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas)? I’m not so sure. Again, I think he’s trying to be as thoroughly Biblical as possible.

            The Gospel of John opens with “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh.” ‘Word’ in Greek is logos. Logos is a Greek word, Greek concept, pre-Christian. It means something like the organising principle of things. The way things are. Everything exists in its right place and there’s a right place for everything. It’s a very ordered, controlled and controlling idea for a universe full of static objects. Blake is so into the idea of the logos and of the logos becoming flesh, but again, he’s going to read it through Jewish eyes. And he does so, I’m guessing, based on the Apocrypha.

            In the Wisdom of Solomon, there is an extended commentary on the Exodus. In it, the revolutionary mass movement of the Exodus is conflated and compacted at one point into a single figure that leaps out of heaven from a royal throne [25]. That figure is the ‘Almighty Word.’ The word ‘word’ here translates logos, [26] but logos is itself here translating a Hebrew concept, that of the dabhar. Dabhar means ‘word;’ it also means ‘action’ [27]. For the Hebrew mind-set, something doesn’t exist until it has been turned into action.

            So, we have contrast here between a Greek concept of logos that means a static universe full of passive objects, things and ideas all keeping their place; and a Hebrew concept of logos, the dabhar, that implies a dynamic universe full of action, momentum, propulsion and flux. Apply this to the nativity and if we have Greek logos, we’ve got a passive Jesus dribbling in his cot. If we’ve got a Hebrew dabhar action logos, we’ve got a dynamic figure, leaping out of one dimension into another, from eternity into time, bursting with (Exodus’) revolutionary energy.  Only minutes out of the womb and he’s throwing off his swaddling clothes, jumping in the air and yelling for his biscuits. This is one Jesus who is not going to grow up with blue eyes, blonde hair, and a straight nose, soulfully gazing out into space while daydreaming about death. This is a thoroughly Hebrew Jesus with an appetite for life.
             We’ll look now at the form of the painting.
            It’s built out of a set of horizontal strips of visual information running parallel to the picture plane and stacked vertically up the painting’s surface: Nature at the bottom; stable; Angel. And in this picture there is next to no discernible depth of field. None of the figures casts any shadow. Some of them have shows on them but they seem to be produced by each figure’s own internal lift or the internal light of one of the others. The figures don’t exist in anything even pretending to be three-dimensional space. All pretty medieval. The rest of the age is trying to get as realistic as possible with space and here is Blake annihilating it.

            Blake is doing some pretty weird stuff with space. He’s dismantling our expectations of what we think space is likely to do. And I think he’s doing this to try and overcome the problems we experience with space, by changing the way that we see it. What Blake is attempting to do with space in a painting, Milton is already doing in a poem, with time.

            We have, ordinarily, massive problems with time. We can never, for example, quite say ‘now.’ As soon as we do, that moment has slipped right by us and into the past.  We’re left staring at the future accelerating towards us like an oncoming truck. Not a restful sort of existence. What we want is a still-point, an experience of time as a ‘now.’ But the only person who gets to experience time like that is God, for whom all points of time coincide in an expanded present and a big ‘now.’ For Milton , and for Blake, though, this ‘Big Now’ of eternity does enter history in the incarnation, and through it we have access to a different way of experiencing and processing time.

            Milton plays with the implications of this in his poem. Even in his poem’s title. ‘On the Morning of Christi’s Nativity’ is a pun. It’s not just ‘on’ as in ‘about’, as in ‘on the subject of,’ it is also ‘on’ as in the preposition.  Milton is writing his poem ‘on’ Christmas Day, before dawn, as if the events in Bethlehem are occurring right at the moment of his putting pen to paper [28].

            What he’d just done is collapse history. The events of the past ( Bethlehem ) are occurring parallel to what Milton is doing in 17th Century London. They have become another dimension of Milton ’s ‘now.’ Both Bethlehem and Milton ’s London become dimensions of our ‘now’ when we open the poem and start reading it. Milton’s sense of the past – Bethlehem; the present – his London; and his future – say, where we are here; become part of one enormous ‘Now’ made possible through the incarnation.

            What Milton is doing in a poem on the birth of Christ with time, Blake extends and applies in his painting, to do with space.

            Our ordinary experience of space is that everything is separate from us, distant from us, always ‘over there.’ Everything has an ‘over there-ness’ to it, including our own bodies. For God, in eternity, everything exists in a simultaneous presence in space as a big ‘Here.’ Milton ’s working through poetry towards a Big ‘Now’; Blake, with painting, to space as the Big ‘Here.’

            And he does this by making everything in the picture present on the same plane.

            If we go back to the oxen in the stable, back left, we could find ourselves asking how on earth they fit in there. There’s no room. And are they even inside the building? They might even be looking through a window [29]. But, if we consider that it might be a window, we run into problems. The window, if it exists, would look to be oval in shape. But that oval is determined in part by the curve of the Gothic arch on the left, which we’d thought to be at the front of the building. Already we have a conflating of outside and inside, front and back. The gap between the Gothic arches and the roof is the same colour as the sky behind it. Is the building in fact transparent? Or are the sky and stable on the same plane? And that square, suspended in space beneath the central arch, looking like a TV set, where, really, is that? Is it at the back of the building? Or the front? And if it’s at the front, what then is holding it up? Moreover, if it’s at the front, then we have the very odd phenomenon of a gap cut out in space in the middle of – more space!

            The key to it all, I think, is in what is for me, the oddest part of the picture, the Gothic arch itself. That arch is not a doorway. It’s not even an opening in the building. It would make for a pretty dumb opening in the middle of winter. Rather, the arch, I think, is a cross-section. And if so, that places us in a pretty odd position with regard to painting.

            We’d think we wee outside the painting looking in. But if that Gothic arch is a cross-section, then the fourth wall of the stable is somewhere behind us (indicates) behind our heads and backs. We are already ‘inside’ the stable. We are already ‘inside’ – the painting. We are at once outside the painting, and transcendent to it as God is to the world; and we’re inside the painting and immanent to it – as God is to the world.  We’ve just incarnated into the picture. More to the point, we’ve just discovered that we’re already ‘incarnated’ into the picture. If we’re inside and outside the painting at the same time, then we’re discovering that all points of space are continuous with us and so part of our own bodies. We are starting to see like God . . .
            1 John says that no one has seen God at any time. Why? Because it is God who is in us, doing the seeing [30]. Blake takes very seriously Galatians 2.20, “It is no longer I that liveth but Christ that liveth in me.” It is no longer ‘I’ that liveth – my ordinary self, my ordinary ego; it is no longer ‘eye’ that liveth - my ordinary way of ‘seeing.’  Christ has displaced both things. Christ is God in human form and in the human form that is us. For Blake, the incarnation is something that is continually occurring.

             We are no longer just looking at a painting of the birth of Christ. We are, in dealing with the structure of this painting, and the perceptual shifts it triggers in us, experiencing the ‘birth of Christ’ in us. The painting isn’t just descriptive - it is perceptually performative. The painting is doing what it is saying. It is not just a painting of a Greek logos Jesus ‘telling’ us some ‘Good News’; it is Hebrew logos/dabhar Jesus who takes words and turns them into action. Takes the ‘Word’ and through our action in engaging with the painting, turns it into – us.
            Blake has a wonderful line about the incarnation: “God becomes as we are so that we may become as God is” [31]. Something of that is happening through this picture.

            Blake is thinking through the idea of the incarnation fairly fully here. He is very enthusiastic about the incarnation and its implications. He is also very hostile to the idea of a God who stays separate from humanity, who stays transcendent, sitting in the sky like a tyrant on his pot.

            He writes a poem to such a God, or to the idea of such a God. Kind of an angry fridge-note to the ‘head tenant’:

             “To God:

If you would create a Circle to go into

Go into it yourself and see how you would do” [32].


              The flip side of this, of course, is the incarnation. God does ‘go into’ the ‘Circle,’ the body of the world. God does enter human form and experiences what we experience. However, he does not simply suffer with us, he also transforms experience, and our perception of it. And that, vigorously. The incarnation is, for Blake, the central event of history, and the central idea of his life’s work.
            We could reply then to Blake’s question “So how does God do?” on the basis of Blake’s own painting here: ‘Mother and Child, both doing fine …”




 [1] John Milton, Poetical Works, ed. Douglas Bush, (Oxford UP: Oxford, 1977) 64-72.

  [2] Six Illustrations to Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ 1815, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, reproduced in Peter Ackroyd, Blake: A Biography, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1996). Blake painted the whole group of Nativity pictures twice, once in 1809 (now at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester ) and once in 1815 (in the Huntington Gallery, California). I have chosen to work from the Huntington version. 

[3] C.f. Leslie Tannenbaum’s discussion of this metaphoric link/play between Milton’s Nativity Ode and Blake’s own poetic parody of it in Europe: A Prophecy, in Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1982) 155-157  

[4] Milton : “The immortal mind that hath forsook/ Her mansion in this fleshly nook,” Il Penseroso,; c.f. Blake “In this dark world, a narrow house, I wander up & down,” Vala, both cited in Pamela Dunbar, ‘The Nativity Ode,’ William Blake’s Illustrations to the Poetry of Milton, (Clarendon: Oxford, 1980) 94.  

[5] Dunbar , 97. 

 [6] See Micah 5.2; and 5.4b-5a; also (Roman poet) Virgil, ‘Eclogue IV,’ The Eclogues (c. 42 B.C.E.), trans. Guy Lee (Penguin: London, 1984) 55-59.

[7] St. Augustine , The City of God  

[8] King James Version , Book XVIII:46 , trans. Henry Bettenson, intro. John O’Meara, (Penguin: London, 1984) 827.





 [9] David O. Brown, Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999) 98.

 [10] See Blake’s famous ‘Preface’ to his ‘brief’ epic Milton: A Poem, copy B, plate 2, William Blake: Milton A Poem and the Final Illuminated Works: The Ghost of Abel; On Homer’s Poetry [and] on Virgil; Laocoon, ed. Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi, Blake’s Illuminated Books, Volume 5, The William Blake Trust/The Tate Gallery (Tate: London, 1998 p1993]), 9


  [11] Blake uses the literary technique known as ‘typology’ first formulated, perhaps, by St. Augustine : ‘The Old Testament conceals the New Testament; the New Testament reveals the Old Testament.” Figures in one Testament ‘prefigure’ or echo, figures in the other.  One short cut to recognising this is in the correspondence of names, e.g. the similarities between the Joseph of Genesis and the Joseph of the Gospels. Both are ‘dreamers’ who lead, respectively, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ forms of ‘’ (Jacob; Jesus) down into Egypt .        

            Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, (Princeton UP: 1947) is an extended essay written on the basis of Biblical typology but one wherein typology as a procedure remains implicit and unnamed. Frye’s explicit essays on typology regarding the Bible are listed after this seminar’s bibliography.              Recently Bishop Spong has discovered the technique of something like typology for himself but (mis)named it ‘midrash.’ In Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (Harper: San Francisco, 1996) Spong identifies the two Zechariahs with each other and Malachi with John the Baptist. Spong is working in a non-Blakean context, but he makes the identifications explicit (196-197).      The habit of reading human figures as books is a standard topos of ‘Gothic’ poetry and abounds in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is where I first encountered it. In Dante’s poem, the poet Virgil is both the poet, and, by metonymy (representing one thing by another associated with it) the complete ‘body’ or ‘person’ of his poetry. In Dante’s Purgatory, the twenty-four elders who accompany the Beatrician pageant are the twenty-four elders of Revelation, and the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible as formulated by St. Jerome . See Dante, Purgatory, Canto XXIX: 83, trans. Dorothy Sayers, (Penguin: London, 1955) and note, 304.

 [12] C.f. Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 196-197.

 [13] See Blake’s treatment of Milton ’s relationship with the women in his ( Milton ’s) life in Milton: A Poem.


 [14] Milton, Nativity, lines 35-36; 39, Bush, 66.

 [15] Zechariah 3.8-9; c.f. Spong, 196.

 [16] Ezekiel 4.8

 [17] Dunbar , 96.

 [18] Spong, 188-189.

 [19] Spong, 189.

 [20] Jeremiah 3.

 [21] Ezekiel 16.

 [22] Mary: “If I were pure, never could I taste the sweets/Of the forgiveness of sins!”, William Blake, Jerusalem, plate 61, in William Blake: Jerusalem: The Emanation of the  Giant Albion, Blake’s Illuminated Books, Volume 1, Ed. Morton D. Paley (William Blake Trust/Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1998).

 [23] For Blake’s knowledge and use of the felix culpa, see Paley, Jerusalem , 229, and S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, rev. ed. (Brown UP: 1988) 264. See also Frye, Fearful Symmetry, 392-393.

 [24] Dunbar , 96.

 [25] Wisdom of Solomon 18: 14-16 “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne …”

 [26] See John R. Kohlenberger III, The Parallel Apocrypha, (Oxford UP: New York, 1997), first column, ‘The Greek Old Testament,’ 334.

 [27] See Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford UP: Oxford, 1975) 42-43 and Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (Norton: New York, 1970 [SCM 1960]) 58-69.

 [28] See the Nativity Ode, the four opening stanzas in particular.

 [29] Mark Mahoney, conversation.

 [30] C.f. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry, 32.

 [31] Blake, There is No Natural Religion, Series 2: b12, in The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary, ed. David V. Erdman, (Dover: New York, 1992 [1974]) 32.

  [32] Blake, ‘To God,’ The Complete Poetry of William Blake, newly rev. ed. David v. Erdman (ed.), commentary, Harold Bloom, (Anchor-Doubleday, New York: 1988) 516.

For Further Reading :


 -         Frye, Northrop - Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, (Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1990).

-         Spong, Bishop John Shelby - Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, (Harper: San Francisco , 1996.

 Note: Bishop Spong uses the term ‘midrashic’ to describe a Jewish literary technique used in the Gospels that he feels has been lost for 2000 years. What he describes, however, is also know as ‘typology’ and has been known to Christian tradition through the Middle Ages (Dante) and on to Milton (17th Century), Blake (the Romantic Period) and into the 20th Century with Eric Auerbach and Northrop Frye. Spong’s book provides a helpful introduction to the details of something that could be construed as ‘typology’ but under a different name.

 For Further Reading on Typology and the Bible:

Frye, Northrop – The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harvest/ Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego, 1982).

Frye, Northrop – Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature (Harvest/ Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego, 1990)

Frye, Northrop – The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion (Toronto UP: Toronto, 1991).

 Seminar Bibliography:

-         Ackroyd, Peter – Blake: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1996).

-    St. Augustine – The City of God , trans. Henry Bettenson, intro. John O’Meara, (Penguin: London, 1984)

-         Bindman, David (ed.) – William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books (William Blake Trust and the Tate Gallery – Thames and Hudson : New York , 2000)

-         Blake, William – Jerusalem : The Emanation of the Giant Albion , ed. Morton Paley, William Blake Trust, Princeton UP: New Jersey , 1998)

-         Blake, William – Milton: A Poem and the Final Illuminated Works: The Ghost of Abel; On Homer’s Poetry [and] on Virgil; Laocoon, Blake’s Illuminated Books, Volume 5, ed. Robert N. Essick, Joseph Viscomi, (William Blake Trust/ The Tate Gallery: London, 1998 [1993])

-         Bloom, Harold – A Map of Misreading (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975).

-         Boman, Thorleif – Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (Norton: New York, 1970)

-         Bush, Douglas (ed.) – Milton: Poetical Works, (Oxford: oxford UP, 1977)

-         Carroll, Robert and Prickett, Stephen – The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha (Oxford World Classics – Oxford UP: Oxford, 1998).

-         Dante – The Divine Comedy: 2: Purgatory, trans. Dorothy Sayers, (Penguin: London, 1957)

-         Dunbar, Pamela – William Blake’s Illustrations to the Poetry of John Milton (Clarendon: Oxford, 1980).

-         Erdman, David V. and Bloom, Harold - The Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake, newly rev. ed., (Doubleday-Anchor: New York, 1988).

-         Erdman, David V. – The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary, (Dover: New York, 1992).

-         Fox, Matthew – Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes (Bear: Santa Fe, 1981)

-         Frye, Northrop – Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, (Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1990 [1947])

-         Hall, James – Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, rev. ed., (Harper and Row – Icon: New York, 1974)

-         Hill, Christopher – Milton and the English Revolution, (Faber: London, 1977)

-         Kohlenberger, John R. III (ed.) – The Parallel Apocrypha, (Oxford UP: New York, 1997)

-         Lister, Raymond – The Paintings of William Blake, (Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1986)

-         Metzger, Bruce (ed.) – New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha (Oxford UP: New York, 1989)

-         Mitchell, W.J.T. – Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1978)

-         Scholem, Gershom – Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, (Schocken: New York, 1995)

-         Spong, Bishop John Shelby – Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (Harper: San Francisco, 1996)

-         Tannenbaum, Leslie – Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton UP: New Jersey, 1982)

-         Virgil – The Eclogues, trans. Guy Lee (Penguin: London, 1984).