Front Page Titles (by Subject) ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE BOOK OF JOB. - Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job
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ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE BOOK OF JOB. - William Blake, Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job 
Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. With Descriptive Letterpress, and A Sketch of the Artist’s Life and Works. By Charles Eliot Norton (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1875).
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ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE BOOK OF JOB.
“Re-engraved time after time,
Ever in their youthful prime,
My designs unchanged remain.
Time may rage, but rage in vain,
Far above Time’s troubled fountains,
On the great Atlantic mountains,
In my golden house on high.
There they shine eternally.”
“These Inventions to the Book of Job,” says Mr. Rossetti,* “which may be regarded as the works of Blake’s own hand, in which he most unreservedly competes with others,—belonging, as they do, in style, to the accepted category of engraved designs,—consist of twenty-one subjects, each highly wrought in light and shade, and each surrounded by a border of allusive design and inscription, executed in a slighter style than the subject itself. Perhaps this may fairly be pronounced, on the whole, the most remarkable series of engravings on a scriptural theme which has appeared since the days of Albert Dürer and Raphael, widely differing, too, from either.”
These designs are more generally known than any others by Blake, except the illustrations to Blair’s “Grave;” but they are by no means so familiar, or so plain in meaning, as to render needless some attempt to set forth their intricate beauties in the shadowy presentment of verbal description.
“Thus did Job continually.”
The patriarch Job, with his kneeling family around him, is seen worshipping under a mighty oak, on which instruments of music are suspended. The household are surrounded by feeding and reposing flocks as far as the distant homestead, in a landscape glorified by setting sun, crescent moon, and evening star. The sun is almost sunk. “Thus did Job continually,” is the motto of the design. Beneath is an altar from which rises a triple flame: on the front of the altar is inscribed, “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life. It is spiritually discerned,”—as if Blake had in mind to suggest that Job’s prayers and burnt-offerings, in the days of his prosperity, were, after all, but the propitiatory and selfish sacrifices of the law.
“When the Almighty was yet with me, when my Children were about me.”
In this plate we see the same persons as in the preceding plate, still full of happiness and thanksgiving, and attended by two angels of the Divine Presence; for this was the time for Job, “when,” in the words chosen for the chief motto, “the Almighty was yet with me, when my children were about me.” But there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them; and, above the happy group, we see what they do not see,—the Almighty on his throne, in a circle of clear light, surrounded by angels, and Satan rushing before him in a fiery whirlwind. The mingling of surprising power of conception and of design, with hardly less surprising weakness, is conspicuous in this plate.
“The Fire of God is fallen from Heaven.”
In this subject we behold the workings of the power granted by the Lord to Satan over all that Job hath,—the fire of God falling from heaven, and a great wind from the wilderness smiting the house, and tumbling it in ruins on the feasters, while, seated cross-legged on a toppling wall, Satan, black-winged, looks down with a leer of satisfaction on the destruction. Behind him, instead of the circle of clear and peaceful light behind the Almighty in the preceding plate, there is a circle, symbolic of the power granted him, from which dart lightnings and angular thunderbolts. The sympathetic fancy of the artist appears in the framing design, formed of tongues of flame, and wreaths of smoke, in the hollows of which one may see the gleam of serpents’ scales, and beneath the figures of scorpions.
“And I only am escaped Alone to tell thee.”
A breathless messenger brings fresh ill-tidings to Job and his wife, who are sitting lonely, bewailing their first misfortunes; while, far off through the desolate landscape, other messengers are hurrying with reports of calamity,—“and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
“Then went Satan forth from the Presence of the Lord.”
“The fifth is a wonderful design. Job and his wife still sit side by side, the closer for their misery, and still, out of the little left to them, give alms to those poorer than themselves. The angels of their love and resignation are ever with them on either side; but above, again the unseen heaven lies open. There sits throned that Almighty figure, filled now with inexpressible pity, almost with compunction. Around him his angels shrink away in horror; for now the fires which clothe them—the very fires of God—are compressed in the hand of Satan into a phial for the devoted head of Job himself. Job is to be tried to the utmost; only his life is withheld from the tormentor.” So writes Mr. Rossetti: but, though I hesitate to differ from him in interpretation, it seems to me that there is a clear distinction between the fires that surround Satan, and which he pours on the head of Job, and the flames of light with which the shrinking angels are clothed; and they, indeed, seem to shrink away, not so much in compassionate horror, as in dread of contact with the deathless fires in which Satan burns. The circle of light behind the Lord is half eclipsed. It is a piece of remarkable engraving.
“And smote Job with Sore Boils from the Sole of his Foot to the Crown of his Head.”
Job is here represented lying on the ground, while Satan stands upon him, pouring fire from a phial, smiting him with sore boils. At the feet of Job, kneels his wife, burying her face in her hands. On the left the sun, with flashing rays, sinks gloomily behind a black sea. The circle of shaded light behind the head of Satan deserves notice, apparently symbolizing, as in the other plates where it occurs, the fact, that to him, for the time, the power of the Lord had been committed to persecute Job: “Behold he is in thy hand, but save his life.” Note also the symbolism of the design around the central piece,—the pitcher broken at the fountain, the grasshopper that is a burden, the broken crook, the croaking frog in slime and weeds, the bat-winged angels each holding a thread from which a poisonous spider depends.
“They lifted up their Eyes afar off, and knew him not.”
The approach of the three friends of Job. Job is seated, leaning his head on the bosom of his wife; and his exhausted, but still patient eyes turn toward a bit of architecture which suggests the form of the cross. The light of the sun is seen behind distant, barren mountains. “Ye have heard of the patience of Job.”
“Let the Day perish wherein I was born”
Job, with uplifted hands, curses the day wherein he was born; his wife on one side, his friends on the other, kneeling upon the ground with bowed heads. The sun is obscured by clouds of smoke. Here, as in many of the designs, structures of heavy architecture, and dark, bare mountains, seem to indicate the weight of his afflictions and the solitariness of his soul.
“Then a Spirit passed before my Face.”
“This,” says Mr. Rossetti, “is among the grandest of the series. Eliphaz the Temanite is telling Job of the thing that was secretly brought to him in the visions of the night; and above we are shown the matter of his words,—the spirit which passed before his face; all blended in a wondrous partition of light, cloud, and mist of light.”
“The Just, Upright Man is laughed to Scorn.”
Job, risen upon his knees, prays his reproachful friends to have pity on him, for the hand of God has touched him; but the just, upright man is laughed to scorn. Again the architecture in the background takes the form of a heavy cross; the hills are still black; but behind them is a faint light, “for though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
“With Dreams upon my Bed thou scarest me, and affrightest me with Visions.”
Here, “most terrible of all, we see embodied the accusations of torment which Job brings against his Maker; a theme hard to dwell upon, and which needs to be viewed in the awful spirit in which Blake conceived it.” The design is thoroughly characteristic, both in its strength and its feebleness, of Blake’s wilder imaginations.
“I am Young, and ye are very Old, wherefore I was Afraid.”
“In this subject there comes at last some sign of soothing change. The sky, till now full of sunset and surging cloud, in which the stones of the ruined home looked as if they were still burning, has here given birth to the large, peaceful stars, and under them the young Elihu begins to speak: ‘Lo! all these things worketh God oftentimes with man to bring forth his soul from the pit.’ The expression of Job, as he sits with folded arms, beginning to be reconciled, is full of delicate, familiar nature; while the look of the three unmerciful friends, in their turn reproved, has something in it almost humorous.” The figure of the wife of Job, still bowed, her face still hidden, but in an attitude of calm, should be compared with the representation of her in preceding plates, especially Plate VIII., to mark Blake’s power of expressing, through the action of the body, various and subtilely distinguished moods of feeling. The frame-work of floating spirits is of peculiar grace and beauty.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the Whirlwind.”
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind;” a magnificent design, wonderful in conception and in execution. Job and his wife kneel with tranquil, uplifted faces, and with folded hands, while the Lord speaks from the whirlwind, in which he is wrapped as in a garment, while the edges sweep round Job and his awe-stricken friends. The imaginative realism of Blake displays itself here in its full force. The whirling sweep of the border adds to the effect of the main subject.
“When the Morning Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for Joy.”
Peace has returned to the countenances of Job and his wife, who, together with the three friends, raise their faces toward heaven, while “God himself speaks of his own omnipotence, and right of judgment, of the day of creation, ‘when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’ All that He says is brought before us, surrounding his own glorified image. This is a design which has never been surpassed in the whole range of Christian art.” In its general spirit, and in the distribution of its parts, it reminds one of the work of the early Tuscan masters; but the originality of its conception, and its lovely imagery, are expressions of the strong individuality of Blake’s genius.
“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee.”
Behemoth, “the chief of the ways of God,” and Leviathan, who “is king over all the children of pride,” are represented as if from some mediæval bas-relief. The design exhibits the marked tendency, in much of Blake’s work, to an architectural mode, and strictly ornamental character of composition. His fondness for Gothic art, doubtless, promoted this tendency in him; and it was further helped by his sense of balance and proportion in composition, as well as by his skill as an engraver in the production and the bold distribution of strongly contrasted light and shade.
“Thou hast fulfilled the Judgment of the Wicked.”
For this subject the Book of Job does not supply authority. It is, however, required to complete the drama. It represents the fall of Satan, baffled in his attempt to overcome the integrity of Job. The earth has opened between Job and his wife on one side, and the three friends of Job on the other; from the gulf flames are darting up, and into them “Satan as lightning falls from Heaven.” “Hell is naked before him, and Destruction has no covering.” Two of his ministers fall with him. On either side are two angels of light; above, in the centre, sits the Almighty, raising his hand alike for doom and for blessing. In the circle of light around him are figures of angels, two of them with veiled faces. The chief motto in the border is, “Thou hast fulfilled the judgment of the wicked.” The other mottoes give a clew to Blake’s conception, which is conformed to the common Christian doctrine, and shows no trace of his peculiar tenets. The design and the texts are alike intended to show that the Devil is powerless against holiness, and that the ways of God are past finding out. “Even the Devils are subject to us through thy name.” “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.” “The Prince of this World shall be cast out.” “The Accuser of our brethren is cast down which accused them before our God day and night.” Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection? It is higher than heaven, what canst thou do? it is deeper than hell, what canst thou know?”
“I have heard Thee with the Hearing of the Ear, but now my Eye seeth Thee.”
The Lord appears in radiance, holding his hands in blessing over the heads of Job and his wife, who with trustful countenances kneel before him. The three friends crouch as in fear behind them, with their backs turned to the Lord, two of them hiding their faces, while Bildad the Shuhite glances up askance at the awful Presence. The chief motto is from a verse of the last chapter of the book a little altered: “I have heard thee with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye seeth thee.” The subordinate texts are full of meaning and of beautiful application. They form here, as in other plates, an admirable “moral” for the main story.
“And my Servant Job shall pray for you.”
Job, once more accepted of the Lord, stands with outstretched arms praying for his friends, against whom the wrath of the Lord was kindled, before an altar of hewn stones, by which they humbly kneel. The broad sun, high in the heavens, fills the scene with his radiance; the smoke of the sacrifice passes off on either side, not obscuring the light, while the point of a heart-shaped body of flame rises upward across the face of the sun. To the left a low light, between trunks of trees, seems to be the bright sea, which, but a while since, was dark as night. The figure of Job is very grand, and the engraving masterly in its execution. It seems as if Blake himself were satisfied both with composition and execution; for in the border, devoted usually to symbolic illustration of his design, he has set a painter’s palette and brushes, and an engraver’s graving-tool, and between them has inscribed the usual “W. Blake inv. & sculpt.”
“Every one also gave Him a Piece of Money.”
Job and his wife sit under a fig-tree, and his brethren and all his sisters and his acquaintances are seen coming there unto him; “and every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an ear-ring of gold.” There is great beauty in the female figures.
“There were not found Women Fair as the Daughters of Job in all the Land.”
Another subject for which the Book of Job affords no distinct authority. Job is seen relating his trials and his mercies to the new daughters that were born to him, “no women so fair in all the land;” and behind them, as it were on panels in the walls of the chamber, are represented the scenes he describes. The comparison of these smaller designs with the preceding representations is interesting, and illustrates the vigor and variety of the artist’s imaginative vision.
“So the Lord blessed the Latter End of Job more than the Beginning.”
“The series culminates in a scene of music and joy, which, contrasted with the calm thanksgiving of the opening design, gloriously embodies the words of its text, ‘So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning.’ ” The whole family are assembled under the same mighty oak under which Job and his sons and daughters were gathered in the first design. The instruments of music are taken from the branches. Once more the flocks lie peacefully around them. As it was sunset in the opening scene, it is sunrise now; and the moon, with a waning crescent, appears, attended by the morning star and the planet of dawn. The border design is the same as in the first plate, but the texts are different. On the altar is inscribed, “In burnt-offerings for sin thou hast no pleasure.”
“In these last three designs,” says Mr. Rossetti, “I would specially direct attention to the exquisite beauty of the female figures. Nothing proves more thoroughly how free was the spiritualism of Blake’s art from any ascetic tinge. These women are given to us no less noble in body than in soul; large-eyed and large-armed also; such as a man may love with all his life. The angels (and especially those in Plate XIV., ‘When the morning stars sang together,’) may be equally cited as proofs of the same great distinctive quality. These are no flimsy, filmy creatures, drowsing on feather-bed wings, or smothered in draperies. Here the utmost amount of vital power is the heavenly glory they display; faces, bodies, and wings, all living and springing fire. And that the ascetic tendency, here happily absent, is not the inseparable penalty to be paid for a love of the Gothic forms of beauty, is evident enough, when we see those forms everywhere rightly mingling with the artist’s conceptions, as the natural breath of sacred art. With the true daring of genius he has even introduced a Gothic cathedral in the background of the worshipping group, in Plate I., as the shape in which the very soul of worship is now forever embodied for us. It is probably with the fine intention of symbolizing the unshaken piety of Job under heavy affliction, that a similar building is still seen pointing its spires heavenward in the fourth plate, where the messengers of ruin follow close at one another’s heels. We may, perhaps, even conjecture that the shapeless buildings, like rude pagan cairns, which are scattered over those scenes of the drama which refer to the gradual darkening of Job’s soul, have been introduced as forms suggestive of error and the shutting out of hope. Everywhere throughout the series we meet with evidences of Gothic feeling. Such are the recessed settle and screen of trees in Plate II., much in the spirit of Orcagna; the decorative character of the stars in Plate XII.; the leviathan and behemoth, in Plate XV., grouped so as to recall a mediæval medallion or wood-carving; the trees, drawn always as they might be carved in the wood-work of an old church. Further instances of the same kind may be found in the curious sort of painted chamber, showing the themes of his discourse, in which Job addresses his daughters in Plate XX., and in the soaring trumpets of Plate XXI., which might well be one of the rich conceptions of Luca della Robbia.
“The borders of illustrative design and inscription, which surround each subject, are slight in manner, but always thoughtful and appropriate, and often very beautiful. Where Satan obtains power over Job, we see a terrible serpent twined round tree-stems among winding fires, while angels weep, but may not quench them. Fungi spring under baleful dews, while Job prays that the night may be solitary, and the day perish, wherein he was born. Trees stand and bow like ghosts, with bristling hair of branches, round the spirit which passes before the face of Eliphaz. Fine examples also are the prostrate, rain-beaten tree in Plate XIII., and, in the next plate, the map of the days of creation. In Plate XVIII. (the sacrifice and acceptance of Job), Blake’s palette and brushes are expressively introduced in the border, lying, as it were, on an altar-step, beside the signature of his name. That which possesses the greatest charm is, perhaps, the border to Plate II. Here, at the base, are sheepfolds watched by shepherds; up the sides is a trellis, on whose lower rings birds sit upon their nests, while angels, on the higher ones, worship round flame and cloud, till it arches, at the summit, into a sky full of the written words of God.
“Such defects as exist in these designs are of the kind usual with Blake, but far less frequent than in his more wilful works; indeed, many among them are entirely free from any damaging peculiarities. Intensely muscular figures, who surprise us by a sort of line round the throat, wrists, and ankles, but show no other sign of being draped, are, certainly, sometimes to be found here as elsewhere, but not many of them. The lifted arms and pointing arms, in Plates VII. and X., are pieces of mannerism to be regetted, the latter even seeming a reminiscence of Macbeth’s Witches by Fuseli; and a few other slight instances might, perhaps, be cited. But, on the whole, these are designs no less well and clearly considered, however highly imaginative, than the others in the small, highest class of original engraved inventions, which comprises the works of Albert Dürer, of Rembrandt, of Hogarth, of Turner, of Cruikshank in his best time, and some few others. Like all these they are incisive, and richly toned to a degree which can only be attained in engraving by the original inventor, and have equally a style of execution all their own.
“To the high artistic value of this series Mr. Ruskin has borne witness. In his Elements of Drawing for Beginners, 1857, it is specified among the ‘Things to be Studied.’ ‘The Book of Job, engraved by himself,’ that is, by Blake, it is there said, ‘is of the highest rank in certain characters of imagination and expression; in the mode of obtaining certain effects of life it will also be a very useful example to you. In expressing conditions of glaring and flickering light, Blake is greater than Rembrandt.’ ”
The plates that accompany these pages reproduce, with the closeness of a fac-simile, the general character of the original engravings; but they fail to render the most delicate beauties of expression, and the finest touches of execution. The inmost, evanescent, vital spirit of the original is not to be found in these copies. But, for what they do afford,—the poetic and pictorial conception, the general composition, the distribution (though not the scale) of light and shade,—these heliotypes are greatly to be prized, and by their means many a lover of art, who, without them, could know little of Blake’s style, may gain a near, and, so far as it goes, a true acquaintance with the best designs of the most spiritually imaginative of English painters.
[*] In the following description of the Illustrations of the Book of Job, I have made free use of my friend Mr. Rossetti’s exposition of them in Chapter XXXII. of the Life of Blake. The sympathy of corresponding genius, and the insight of a poet’s and painter’s imagination, give authority to his words concerning Blake’s work.