The Eye Altering: William Blake and the Nature of Observation, by Naomi Billingsley

The Jesus Field: Observation, Participation, and how Images alter the Observer

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Introduction: Jesus and the Human Imagination

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In All Religions are One (1788) Blake declared “That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius” (Principle 1st). Blake here is drawing attention to the great, hidden secret of both reality and the nature of God, which is Form. Forms are not ‘things’ but processes or organising movements. Forms are rooted in and expressions of (creations of) an underlying “former”, which in Blake’s early work he called the “Poetic Genius” to signify its formative aspect, a term which is derived from the same root as the word from which we also get “genesis” and indeed “genetic”. According to Blake it is this that gives each body its individual as well as generic “form”. In contrast to almost all other spiritual traditions, Blake understood that forms are not temporary and unimportant but eternal, continually creating and recreating themselves. They are vast invisible forming fields, similar to what Rupert Sheldrake has more recently termed “morphogenetic fields”.

William Blake believed that Christianity is art and that Jesus Christ was an artist, who is both the model and the source of artistic activity. These ideas are central to his artistic and religious vision, and are expressed in various forms throughout his career: from the early account of the Poetic Genius in All Religions are One, to the late aphorisms of the Laocoön plate.

This article examines why Blake identified Christ as artist and Christianity as art. My central argument is that Blake expresses this theory – or theology – of art through his visual representations of Christ. Blake did not mean that Jesus produced works of fine art, nor that one must do so in order to be Christian; rather, Christ’s identity is Imagination, and as such all his acts and all activity in him are art. Thus, I examine Blake’s depictions of Jesus’ life and ministry, and show that Blake represents these themes as analogous to the work of the artist because Jesus changes the way that we perceive the world.

As Morris Eaves highlights at the end of Blake’s Theory of Art, for Blake, Jesus’ art was his public ministry – his parables and miracles were acts of self-expression, which sought to create a new social order. So too Blake seeks, through his art, to engender a community of Imagination. This community is the Divine Body, which is Jesus, who is Imagination – as expressed in the Laocoön aphorism quoted below:

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Thus, Blake’s depictions of Christ are also representations of artistic activity; they include not only images of Jesus’ public ministry, but also of his birth, death and resurrection, as an apocalyptic agent, and in extra-biblical roles.

Whilst Blake’s vision of Christ as the supreme type of the artist was by no means a static concept, it emerged in his works as early as All Religions are One and can be found in works from throughout his career. This article explores how Blake envisaged the life of Christ as manifesting the principles of art through case studies that examine five major themes in Blake’s depictions of Christ in key pictorial projects in his oeuvre: art as regeneration, art as inspiration, art as facilitator, art as eternal, and art as iconoclastic. Imagination alters the way we see the world, and our relationship with it: that is to say, since observed and observed are fundamentally entwined and interdependent (or “entangled”, in the language of modern quantum field theory), imagination alters, or restores, the nature of reality itself – to a unified and integrated (“holistic”) whole, or “vision”.

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Imagination, The Divine Body 

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To see imaginatively is to see humanly, because mercy, pity, peace and love are vital aspects of both inter-relational reality and the human way of seeing that reality. Whereas the left Brain only sees life in terms of power, utility, and dead mechanisms (Urizenic perception or “Single Vision”), the imaginative right hemisphere understands and participates in the creative, evolving, dynamic spirit or holomovement of everything. If we look deeply, we see imagination itself at work – or rather, at play – everywhere in the universe. To be truly objective, to see this reality as it truly is, to become truly human.

As articulated in one of the so-called Laocoön aphorisms quoted above, Blake conceives of Imagination as the identity of Jesus, and as his Divine Body in whom we are members. Thus, Imagination, for Blake, is not a faculty, nor even, as he writes in Milton: ‘a State: it is Human Existence itself’. Imagination is an ontological reality – a way of being – which is the identity of Christ, and our true identity (for sake of convenience I do refer to Imagination as a ‘state’; when I do so the term should be understood as meaning an ontological reality).

In this respect, Imagination is essentially synonymous with the Human Form Divine (cf. Jerusalem 60:56–8). It is also the ontological reality of the world; an important letter that Blake wrote to a dissatisfied patron, Revd Dr Trusler, explains this aspect of his idea of Imagination:

This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision  I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike … to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers … To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination. (23 August 1799)

Trusler had complained that the work that Blake had produced for him was too fanciful; Blake’s retort is that the problem is not his work, but Trusler’s failure of vision. If Trusler saw with eyes of Imagination, he would see that the world is a world of Imagination and would recognise Blake’s works as productions of Imagination.

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Painting the field: “This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World”. The underlying creative intelligence of the universe manifests itself in multiple ways: in dreams, in art, and in the constant generation of Forms (what to the rational faculty merely appears as “Nature”, and as transient and unreal representations – which is how the left hemisphere perceives and relates to reality). As Blake said, “to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself”.

Jesus, for Blake, is the perfect embodiment of Imagination because through his ministry, he changes the way that people see the world. Blake seeks to achieve the same aim through his work. 

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Giving itself so that others may live: this is the central process of “life” or being – a spontaneous overflowing and continual self-transcendence, based in love, in which all are reflections – ‘images’, or ‘aspects’ (like the four ‘faces’ of the Zoas) – of that underlying movement. The left brain only sees the world in terms of mutual use and consumption (classical Darwinism), but in fact a far greater and much deeper exchange is constantly taking place: the constant sacrifice of Being in order for the individual to live, and the constant sacrifice of the Individual in order that divinity and awareness is brought into this world. Humanity is at the centre of this exchange, the Sulam Yaakov upon which Jacob beholds “the angels of God ascending and descending” (Genesis 28:12). And not only ascending and descending but moving laterally, between individuals, a constant transmission of giving and receiving upon which we live and which constitutes the ground of our being as social animals. “Jesus”, for Blake, is the perfect embodiment of Imagination because through his ministry he changes the way that people see the world.” As far as we can know from his life and ministry – the way he lived and the way he thought, which as Willis Barnstone notes was essentially poetic (The Poems of Jesus Christ, 2012) – Jesus was a remarkable instantiation of the right hemisphere itself into the world.

To embody Imagination is a social (relational), rather than individualistic ideal – we become at once truly ourselves, and part of the Divine Body of Jesus, the Imagination. At times, there is apparent tension between Christ as actor and as facilitator (a figure who allows others to act); this is because in Blake’s mythos the figure of Christ represents both the Imagination (or the Human Form Divine) itself and its supreme manifestation in Jesus. Thus, as actor, he is the type of the individual embodying that reality, and as facilitator he is Imagination itself engendering that process. Moreover, because Imagination is the true identity of God, Christ is the pre-eminent identity of the Godhead, and Blake is critical of paternalistic and legalistic figurings of the deity, as I discuss in the following.

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“To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination” – Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 5.

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Blake’s Theory of Art 

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“Jesus Christ is the great invisible poet of the world. Like the Old Testament prophets, he communicates in wisdom poetry – in short maxims, in narrative parable, and always in memorable metaphor. Jesus spoke uniformly in verse as did Hebrew Bible prophets” – Willis Barnstone. Jesus not only spoke in poetry, in a very real sense he was poetry – all his acts, his metaphors, his parables, his interactions, his relations, are the imagination in action. In that sense, Jesus was the ‘archetype’ or type of Art – of imagination, an instantiation or incarnation of the right hemisphere in time. 

In Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye interprets Blake’s idea of Imagination as a universal reality in which ‘[e]verything worth doing and done well is an art’, and because Jesus is Imagination itself, ‘we perceive as God: we do not perceive God’. In other words, all worthwhile activity is art, which is a participation in the activity of Christ the Imagination. 

Blake’s art sets out to make the viewer a participant rather than an observer, a partner in pursuit of visionary perception; he expresses this notion most explicitly in his notebook description of the Last Judgement (1810): 

If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought if he could Enter into Noahs Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always intreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his Grave then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy … I intreat then that the Spectator will attend to the Hands & Feet to the Lineaments of the Countenances they are all descriptive of Character & not a line is drawn without intention. 

In other words, the work of art is completed through the engagement of responsive viewers, which engenders their union into the world of the artwork, the world of Blake’s mythos, a state where art and religion are one. 

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“If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought …” Blake saw the ‘Fiery Chariot’ of human consciousness as itself the key to unlocking divinity; he employs images and visual representations, which some spiritual traditions disdained, but they are seldom literal or ‘natural’ likenesses: they are deliberately targeted at the right hemisphere of the brain, not the left: his work, he said, was “addressed to the Imagination, which is Spiritual Sensation, & but mediately to the Understanding or reason”. Image: ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car’ from Blake’s Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-27).

Blake’s intensely audience-centred approach to art, where the image exists to regenerate the field of perception, is an example of a larger narrative in the critical theory of Romanticism, which argues that the value of a picture or poem is derived from its power to move its individual beholder or reader.

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Images, like Forms, are Chariots. We participate in them and they participate in us. You enter into them and they enter into you. Every Blake image is therefore a Door of Perception, which you can pass through. You enter through Perception itself, in which observed and observed become one. That is to say, in which the thought of an “observer” disappears. At such moments, the field-like quality of reality re-emerges or resurrects itself, and the observer forgets his or her “particle” or “particular” self. This is what “communion” means for Blake, and it is central to all imaginative projects – such as reality itself. Image: Ezekiel’s Wheels or Ezekiel’s Vision of the Whirlwind (c. 1803-5). Ezekiel’s “chariot” is the body, is the vehicle, is the vision.

In Romantic Studies, this interactional model has been characterised as a move from a mimetic to an expressive aesthetic; as Mitchell writes of Blake, in an expressive aesthetic, the work is imagined as a living form – a phrase Blake himself used of Gothic art (On Homer’s Poetry), a catalyst for ‘collective awakening’ and a vehicle ‘delivering us into the human family’ (Mitchell, Blake’s Composite Art). 

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“If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.“ Cleansing these doors is both an imaginative act and a bodily one (“through an improvement of sensual enjoyment”): we cannot cleanse or improve our perception through rationalistion, or rationalise our way into Being. Indeed, rationalisation is what has closed up our perception. Jesus embodied this embodied imaginative perception for Blake, contrasting it with the dead world of the letter, the law, the continuous laborious self-involved rationalisations, that constitute a formidable screen and barrier against our apprehension of life in the name of “explaining” them. This is what Blake meant by the “Covering Cherub”, which prevents our return to “Eden”. Instead, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse. Not from rules” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

In other words, Blake’s images are openings into a world of transformed sensory experience. To quote Mitchell again, Blake’s images are not ‘representational’, creating ‘a plausible visualization’ of a scene, but ‘symbolic’; not concerned with creating a realistic setting, but with schematising details to create a symbolic world. Blake is a ‘visionary’ and ‘transformer’ rather than a ‘visualizer’ and ‘translator’. 

Thus, the Romantic image is an experience of being in the world, not a record of things in the world. 

Within this viewer-centric model of art, Blake’s Christ enacts the processes by which individuation is transformed into community. Christ is the archetypal expressive artist who makes the audience self-expressive subjects, the sensory opening by which we come to know that ‘The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’ (Laocoön). I therefore discuss Christ as facilitator, exploring a parallel between art and Jesus’ ministry as participatory – that is, as phenomena which facilitate engagement from their audiences and are thus community-building.

In his representations of Jesus’ public ministry, Blake presents a relatively inactive, even seemingly impassive, figure. I argue that this is Christ as a facilitator or an enabler who allows other figures to act. Blake’s depictions of figures from Jesus’ ministry (in the biblical watercolours) are exemplary audience members, who participate in the community that Jesus seeks to engender in his ministry.

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As with all creative acts, the essential stage or “facilitation” for creativity and community-building is clearing a space: Jesus is not interested in imposing beliefs, laws, or ways of thinking on people, but freeing them from these, so that their inner creativity and humanity can emerge. The act of creation, like that of “revelation” itself (from Greek apokalupsis, meaning ‘uncover, reveal’), is “something we uncover”, not something we merely add something on to, as McGilchrist acutely notes (his example is a sculptor, such as Michelangelo, who allows a statue to come into being by clearing away the stone). Note in the image above (Blake’s The Ascension), that the sense is also of a rending of the veil – of perception (left brain perception), to reveal or engage with the wider field of imaginative or communal vision, which those representations had concealed. Blake’s image is also this act: it is an image of an image opening of an image opening. 

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Regeneration: Resurrection and Apocalypse

Themes of renewal, rebirth and regeneration are present in Blake’s writings throughout his career. These processes happen to figures in Blake’s works, and his works seek to engender such changes in his reader/viewer. In the opening poem of Songs of Experience, the Bard, the personification of the poet – or more broadly, of creativity – calls the ‘lapsed Soul’ to renewal. The prevalence of themes of regeneration and renewal in Blake’s works should also be seen in relation to a more widespread interest in theories of vitalism in the Romantic period.

Blake’s idea of regeneration is essentially synonymous with his theory of apocalypse. Literally meaning ‘to uncover’, the term ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek name for the Book of Revelation, ἀποκάλυψις (“apocalypsis”). In his depictions of the Resurrection in Night Thoughts and elsewhere, Blake does employ pictorial motifs that imply a transformation in Christ’s body between death and resurrection, but these should, I argue, be understood as symbolising mental apocalypse rather than as depicting a physical purgation.

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From William Blake’s Illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (c. 1795-97). The athletic, cruciform, pose of Christ in this design is a recurring one in Blake’s images, which seem to represent and convey a state of spiritual vitality and Imagination. The original textual caption for the image, ‘The Christian Triumph’ is still faintly visible on the left in the above image.

Blake’s idea of the Resurrection is not of Christ casting off a physical body but as an event which is emblematic of the individual’s realising the state of Imagination, the Human Form Divine; this transformation is primarily mental rather physical. The Resurrection, then, is apocalyptic and, just as Blake states that the spectator will ‘arise from his Grave’ if he could imaginatively ‘Enter into’ A Vision of the Last Judgment, so his depictions of the Resurrection seem to invite similar engagement from the viewer. Thus, these designs become not merely representations of, but also signs through which the viewer – and Young’s text – rises from the grave of vegetated perception to a state of imaginative vision. 

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He is Heavy: the weight and heaviness of the self-enclosed world of thought itself – dividing, fragmenting, isolating, massy, restricted and restricting. This is how Solar Consciousness – the conscious, explicit, left brain rational ego – actually feels and usually looks like (as also suggested in Auguste Rodin’s massy ‘The Thinker’ or ‘Le Pensuer’ – leaning over, and lost in its own contemplation, rather like Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze sculpture of Blake’s Newton, currently outside the British Library, the place for leaning over and thinking).

It was the perfect humanity – the Human Form Divine – of Jesus that Blake celebrated, not any glorified concept of Christ fabricated by organised religion. The openness of Christ’s gesture contrasts dramatically with the constricted bodies of figures that epitomise spiritual contraction in Blake’s images, such as The Ancient of Days, and Urizen on the title page of his eponymous book, Blake’s personification of constricted, rational thought.

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The world of the body, not the mind: open, expansive, infinite, joyful, relational, alive. Concepts, and ritual practices, of “death” and “resurrection” were commonplace in many religious and esoteric traditions, well before Jesus. What is unusual about the way that Blake engages with them is to suggest that these relate to psychological processes and transformations not to do with the conscious, rational ego (“The Ego is Dead. Long Live the Ego/King”), as in orthodox solar religions (representing the dissociated rational “soul”), but rather to relate them to the resurrection of the whole communal “field”, the wave-like and relational aspect of the whole of reality and our place within it. In other words, they relate to the resurrection of the imagination itself. Blake’s images themselves participate in this process – this process of what Blake also called “awakening”, inviting his “viewers” or fellow imaginers to participate in this resurrection through his physical art and his own imagination. 

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Night Thoughts: The Choice between Dead Reason and Living Form

In 1795, the publisher Richard Edwards commissioned Blake to produce designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742–6). The 537 watercolour designs that Blake produced for this project include 35 depictions of Christ. When Blake presented the full sequence of 537 watercolours to Edwards after the publication project was abandoned, the design that had prefaced Night IV in the engravings was relocated as a frontispiece to the entire series (with the words ‘The Christian Triumph’ removed; see image above). Thus, Blake foregrounds the hope of the Resurrection from the moment the reader-viewer opens the first volume of watercolours, before s/he encounters even the title of Young’s melancholic poem. It is in this arrangement that Blake’s visual regeneration of Young’s poem through the figure of Christ reaches its fullest expression, with this opening frontispiece becoming part of a visual framing of the two volumes of watercolours.

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Night VI, Plate 42. Christ rising from the tomb (of perception). “What Blake shows us here, then, is an inadequate response to the Resurrection: Death-Reason is physically closed in on himself, not seeing the dynamic, gravity-defying, figure rising from the tomb behind him.”

The frontispiece is balanced at the end of the first volume with another image of Christ rising from tomb, seen from a quite different perspective (Night Thoughts, VI.42). Here, rather than leaping outwards, towards the viewer, the rising Christ is depicted in the left-hand margin, in the mid-ground of the pictorial space, seeming to float upwards from a grave set into the ground.

In the foreground, in the lower margin, an aged man kneels next to the tomb, his face half-buried in his hands and hair, and perhaps also a burial garment from the tomb (it is difficult to interpret the mass of white stuff in his hands: perhaps burial garments). Such white-haired, bearded, aged men are a recurrent type in Blake’s images and have a number of associations; here, the figure seems to be a personification of Death and a type of Urizen, Blake’s personification of constricted, rational thought epitomised in The Ancient of Days. The design depicts the final two lines of text of this Night:

More powerful Proof shall take the field against Thee,

Stronger than Death, and smiling at the Tomb (ll. 819–20)

Thus, there is textual precedent for a depiction of Death, and this is an identity which figures of this type assume a number of times in Blake’s Night Thoughts designs, such as the title page to Night I, where the poem’s themes of ‘Life, Death & Immortality’ are personified, and as in Night Thoughts I.13, where Death is a bellman, tolling the call of mortality.

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Night Thoughts I.13, where Death is a bellman, tolling the call of mortality”. Rationality and Death are intimately related: not only does left-brain logic or logos inhabit a self-enclosed, devitalised world of self-generated abstractions – the world of “representations” and verbal names and labels which it constantly mistakes for reality; but “Reason” also thinks only in terms of linear sequences (of literal beginnings and ends), and cannot transcend its own programmes to see what reality might lie beyond the domain of its ratios and “natural” perception (what it calls “Nature”, or the matrix of its ratios). Moreover, Urizen is built on “Void’, as Blake notes at the start of the Book of Urizen. Its constructs literally do not exist, and neither does the “Selfhood” or ego which inheres in them, which is why it is so preoccupied with ideas of its own death or non-existence. 

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Night VI, Plate 40. “Blake depicted this passage with a scene from the temptations of Christ, subversively casting the poet in the role of Satan, thereby representing the command to reason to belief in God as satanic”. The basis of the left-brain Reason programme is fear, constantly having to construct laborious left-brain versions of reality that it can control, to try and “prove” to itself the Faith in being and body it has inherently rejected.

That this figure is also to be associated with Urizenic constrained Reason is evident from the context of Night VI as a whole, in which the poet is attempting to prove immortality to Lorenzo, the infidel antagonist of the poem. Two pages previously, Blake had depicted a passage in which the poet invited Lorenzo to ascend to the clouds to see the glories of the world and thereby understand them to be the work of immortals (Night Thoughts VI.40).

Blake depicted this passage with a scene from the temptations of Christ, subversively casting the poet in the role of Satan, thereby representing the command to reason to belief in God as satanic. Thus, when a Urizen-like figure appears two pages later, absorbed in himself, or at best in material proof of the Resurrection if he is holding a burial garment, we are surely to read him as a personification of Reason.

What Blake shows us here, then, is an inadequate response to the Resurrection: Death-Reason is physically closed in on himself, not seeing the dynamic, gravity-defying, figure rising from the tomb behind him. Thus, the poet’s celebration of Reason in Night VI is represented as a blinkered mode of perception, to which Blake’s rising figure of Christ offers an alternative. Therefore, Blake reminds the reader-viewer that it is the Resurrection/ Imagination and not Death/Reason that is the true state of things, but that he still has further work to do to redeem Young’s text. 

When Blake added the frontispiece to Volume II, he provided a vision of the Resurrection to counteract the two inadequate responses to the event between which it was placed. This is an extraordinary image, which seems to depict Christ in the very moment of transformation, a subject that may be unprecedented and is certainly bold (it is more common to see Christ after the Resurrection or leaping from the tomb, rather then actually in the process of resurrection).

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The frontispiece to Volume II of the Night Thoughts watercolours is a transitional image both in its placement within the object created for Edwards (between the two portions of Young’s text) and in its subject matter – Christ is, to use a phrase from Jerusalem, seen here ‘passing thro’ the Gates of Death’ (27:63). He is emerging from darkness in a dramatic burst of light, dispelling the black clouds that recede at the edges of the picture. Only his torso is visible, and where the rest of his body should be are two figures sprawled on the ground – the soldiers who watched Christ’s tomb and ‘became as dead men’ (Matthew 28:4) when he rose. It is as if Christ is emerging from their bodies, so that they become his ‘Members’ (Laocoön), transformed from their death-like state to life in the Divine Body.

In the Night Thoughts image, Blake has changed the perspective so that the viewer is above, rather than in front of, the tomb, and Christ is propelling himself towards us. This effect is further emphasised by the contrast between the visceral rendering of Christ’s body, which has a three-dimensional quality, and the flatness of the background, making it appear that he is bursting from the page. It is also notable that Christ is wearing a wedding band on his left hand, drawing on the tradition of Christ as the bridegroom of humankind. This is Christ as the embodiment of visionary energy inviting the viewer into his embrace and into union and regeneration with him.

The addition of this image at the centre of the sequence of designs transforms Blake’s Night Thoughts. Sitting between two images depicting inadequate responses to the Resurrection, this Blakean vision of the event liberates the reader-viewer from these false conceptions. Christ’s embrace and the luminescence emanating from him engulf the viewer and Young’s text in his transformative energy. This is resurrection as apocalypse, enacted both upon the viewer of this image and on Young’s text.

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Spot the difference. “Sitting between two images depicting inadequate responses to the Resurrection, this Blakean vision of the event liberates the reader-viewer from these false conceptions.” The images on the left and right are fine, but perhaps rather formulaic and impersonal. They present the ‘Resurrection’ as either a relationally passive (right) or distant, oblique event (left). Something to at best venerate, not participate in. But look at that burning, exuberant emergence of the central image, almost coming out of the image itself – to compel us to engage with it, an encounter with the very process of Encounter (i.e., with Other) itself. For Blake, all images, all phenomena, are like this – as Heidegger was later to explain, they burst into being through and in our encounter with them. They are no longer Representations – the left brain winding sheets and burial clothes of perception – they are right hemisphere Presences. We can touch God through them. We can participate with God through them, through the engagement of our imaginations with them.

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Inspiration: Illumination and Prophecy 

In this section, I argue that Blake represents the birth of Christ as the advent of illumination and prophecy, and as manifesting the oneness of divinity and humanity – the single Human-Divine nature called the Human Form Divine, which Christ perfectly embodied and is the true form of every individual.

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‘The Descent of Peace,’ from Blake’s Illustrations to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (c. 1815). The birth of Jesus coincided with and marked a transformative shift and the emergence of something radically new in the world. Whereas the old world was dominated by the principle of domination – Caesar and pharaohs and military generals were proclaimed masters of the world – the ministry and teachings of Jesus completely reversed and turned the tables on this entire system of values and relationships. Instead of “an eye for an eye”- the well-established logic that held together the Roman, Greek, Sumerian and Hebrew cultures, Jesus proclaimed forgiveness – an utterly irrational and a-rational principle. Instead of praising the rich and famous, he celebrated the poor. His whole life was a radical koan and challenge to the entire system of authority that surrounded him, and its disastrous and unsustainable system of “Pax Romana” and human slavery. No one had combined spiritual teachings with direct social engagement and political action in the way he did, and no other figure so compellingly embodied the values and mode of being in the world of the right hemisphere, which was all about being embodied, empathic, and creative. “The birth of Jesus is the Incarnation” – of the whole notion of Incarnation. Plato, Gnostics, Manichaeans, Greeks, Romans, Zoroastrians, and later Enlightenment scientists would all utterly discredit and demonise the human body. Jesus made it the portal into God, and Blake followed him through it. Here in this image we see the moment of the turning of the world: the old reign of Apollo and Solar Consciousness (conscious, rational ego, colonising the world) about to be rudely and beautifully awakened.

To inhabit the Human Form Divine is to occupy a state of illumination (or “resurrection” – that is “rise again, appear again”, suggesting its perceptual or observational origins), to be members of the Divine Body of Christ the Imagination. However, we do not always inhabit this true form and fall into an inadequate, mundane state of vision.

The birth of Jesus is the supreme manifestation of the Human Form Divine. Whereas in orthodox theology, the birth of Jesus is the Incarnation (the union of humanity and divinity in Jesus) for Blake, it is the ‘inmortation’ (the mortal manifestation) of the eternally Divine Human, and represents the possibility of the individual embodying this state of true vision. 

Imagination the real & eternal World of which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow & in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies are no more. The Apostles knew of no other Gospel.  

For Blake, true art is both product and generator of inspiration because it participates in the reality of Divine Humanity or Imagination. In the advertisement for his one-man exhibition in 1809, Blake declares that, among other aims, his exhibition will be a showcase for art that is engendered by inspiration; he even describes inspiration as a foundational principle for the flourishing of society – the implication being that because inspiration comes from being in accord with Divine Humanity, its existence in society is part and parcel of a flourishing community of brotherhood.

Blake’s Christ, then, embodies inspiration because it is a characteristic of Divine Humanity. More particularly, this quality is epitomised in his role as a prophetic figure, who both manifests and engenders illumination.

In 1799, Blake received a commission from Thomas Butts, a civil servant, to produce 50 small tempera pictures of biblical subjects. When Blake received the commission for the temperas, he expressed a sense of optimism. Following the failure of the Night Thoughts project, here was an opportunity for him to depict subjects that would develop his expression of his religious-artistic vision in pictorial terms.

The pictures in Blake’s Nativity group have a strong sense of series – an unfolding narrative that reflects Christ’s identity as the source of illumination and prophecy; his advent is part of an on-going process of revelation. This sense of sequence, and the proportional prominence given to the Nativity, would have been more evident when the paintings were hung together. Since for Blake, Christ is the source of artistic activity, if he conceived of this commission as a coming of age as an artist, then it is a kind of birth as Christ – Blake’s own realisation of the Human Form Divine.

The New Testament sequence of the biblical temperas opens with The Angel Gabriel Appearing to ZachariasThe angel is bringing news of the birth of John the Baptist – the prophet of Christ and a figure with whom Blake himself identified. The Baptist appears on the frontispiece to Blake’s first illuminated book, All Religions Are One (c. 1788), with his words ‘The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness’ (John 1:23, cf. Isaiah 40:3), which, as Erdman suggests, is probably Blake identifying himself as a Baptist-like prophetic Figure. The Baptist is an archetypal man of Imagination; hence, the annunciation of his birth is a prophecy of illumination.

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The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias (c. 1799-1800). Blake devoted much of the year 1799–1800 to fifty visionary scenes drawn from the Bible, a commission he received from his principal patron, the government clerk Thomas Butts.

The next biblical tempera is The Nativity. Blake’s image is a highly unusual take on this very traditional subject: at the centre of the image is a tiny leaping Christ, bursting across the stable in a blast of light, his arms outstretched in a cruciform gesture. This light outshines the paler light of the star of the Nativity outside, seen through a window. The star is also cruciform and resembles that in Dürer’s Melancholia I (1514), a print that, according to Samuel Palmer, Blake kept a copy of in his workroom. Christ is leaping away from his mother, who swoons into Joseph’s arms, and towards the outstretched arms of Elisabeth who kneels opposite with John in her lap. Christ is often depicted as the source of light in images of the Nativity, but Blake’s idea of Christ as a leaping blaze is apparently unprecedented, breaking with the convention of depicting figures grouped adoringly around the infant.

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The Nativity (c. 1799-1803)

I think the most likely inspiration is one which Blake certainly knew, but which has curiously not been discussed by commentators on the painting: Milton’s Nativity Ode. Blake’s Europe parodies Milton’s poem, and he later produced two sets of watercolour designs based upon it. In the poem, Milton introduces Christ as ‘That glorious form, that light unsufferable,/And that far-beaming blaze of majesty’ (ll. 8–9). That this could be the source of the leaping child in a blaze of light in The Nativity is strengthened by the fact that Blake re-used the motif in the Butts set of designs for Milton’s poem, and the ‘unsufferable’ might be the inspiration for Mary’s swooning. 

An association with Milton’s coming-of-age poem also resonates with Lister’s theory that Blake regarded the Butts commission as his own ‘birth’ as a painter; hence, the Christ child can also be read as an avatar for Blake himself as a prophetic figure bringing forth spiritual truth (Raymond Lister, The Paintings of William Blake). Regardless of Blake’s source(s) for the leaping child, the figure represents Christ as the embodiment of vital, illuminating energy.

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The Jesus Field. For Blake, Jesus represents or embodies an extended imaginative field of creative energy. As he observed in A Vision of the Last Judgment (1810), “This world of Imagination is the World of Eternity it is the Divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body  This World is Infinite & Eternal whereas the world of Generation or Vegetation is Finite & [for a small moment] Temporal  There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see are reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature  All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the Divine body of the Saviour the True Vine of Eternity The Human Imagination who appeard to Me as Coming to Judgment. among his Saints & throwing off the Temporal that the Eternal might be Establishd.”  What we see in the world around us – “The Vegetable Glass of Nature” – are simply the images – in its literal sense of something made in the “image” of something else, that is to say, “likeness”. The left brain thinks that this is all that exists – what it calls the play of forms, the Representations, the shadows on its cranial wall. But they are simply – though beautiful – “Reflections”, Blake notes – ex-pressions of their inner beauty and eternal nature.  All forms exist it the vast wave potential of being, out of which they seem to unfold and refold. But the Forms always exist – it is Time, and Nature, which are the illusions, not Forms. All forms must exist in something, and what they exist in is the form field, or extended Imagination, the “True Vine of Eternity”, as Blake puts it, in which we all exist – now and always. Because the image is an image of what imagines it, for it to image forth humanity means that the imaginer or imagination field too is human. 


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Facilitator: Imaginative Community-building 

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The Woman Taken in Adultery (c. 1805). Perhaps no other episode in Jesus’ ministry captures his view of the body, of humanity, of forgiveness, of how to challenge domination systems without recourse to domination itself, and of the vital importance of community and inclusion, more vividly than his response to the incident of the woman taken in adultery. “They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the Law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:1-11). It is a remarkable way of undoing – of rewriting – the whole html of his culture, in one act.

This section briefly examines how Blake depicts figures from Jesus’ public ministry in his biblical watercolours for Butts (1800–1806) as exemplars of Imaginative activity, and thus as members of the Divine Body – the corporate body of Christ in whom individuals have their true identity.

Blake’s notion of being ‘members’ of the Divine Body is related to his conception of Jesus’ public ministry, as suggested by Morris Eaves in his account of Blake’s theory of art (Blake’s Theory of Art, 1982). Eaves argues that Blake conceives of his own relationship with his audience as a ‘Society of Imagination’, which is modelled on and through Christ. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus generated social order through ‘the works of art’ of parables and miracles, which Eaves reads as less rehearsals of morals than acts of identity; they are Christ and create a community of Imagination in his Divine Body.

Blake’s own name for this society of Imagination is ‘Golgonooza’, which is a relational (and neurological: Golgotha derives from the Aramaic word gulgulta, meaning “place of the skull” – suggesting where this “resurrection” actually takes place)  city of art that appears in the prophetic books Vala/ The Four Zoas (1797–1807, Milton (1804–1811) and Jerusalem (1804–1820). Golgonooza is inhabited by figures from Blake’s own mythology, and is identified as the city of Los, Blake’s incarnation of Imagination. Like Orc, Blake’s embodiment of revolutionary energy, Los, as Imagination, is an avatar of that aspect of Christ. Christ himself also sometimes appears in Blake’s accounts of Golgonooza, variously called the Lamb, the Divine Vision and Jesus.

Jesus’ public ministry begins with his baptism by John in the River Jordan (The Baptism of Christ, c. 1803). The key figure interacting with Christ here is John the Baptist, who, as we’ve seen, has a special status for Blake because he is the original Christian prophet. What we are witnessing then, is John’s response to Jesus’ request, and more significant than the water flowing from John’s hand on to Jesus is the sky full of light, angels and the dove descending – manifestations of divinity which are engendered by Christ rather than John. Indeed, John looks up at these dramatic phenomena in astonishment. Whereas most of the attendant figures are prostrating themselves before Christ, apparently oblivious to the phantasmagorical events above them, John, and a young woman to the left of Jesus, gaze up in rapt astonishment: they are seeing with the eyes of ‘Imagination and Vision’ (To Revd Dr Trusler, 23 August, 1799, E702). Thus, we see here a device which appears in many of Blake’s biblical watercolours, of contrasting exemplary with inadequate responses to Christ, reflecting the prevailing trope of contraries in his oeuvre – as seen in The Nativity and other biblical temperas.

Blake frames the scene with the picture plane cutting through the waters of the Jordan, so that we see the feet of the figures through the water and crucially, the implication is that the viewer is also standing in the river, and hence involved in this event. It is an image of community-building. Blake also used this device in The River of Life (c. 1805), the last watercolour in the biblical sequence; there the river seems to flow from the viewer’s space into the picture, but the implication that the viewer is encompassed in the fellowship depicted in that scene is the same.

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The Baptism of Christ. You cannot be imaginative on your own. All art is both collaborative and communal (relational), because imagination is a field: like the word ‘God’ it is a verb, not a noun. Jesus stands within the wave of potentiality, ‘The River of Life’ (as Blake later depicted him swimming). 

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Taking the plunge: The River of Life (c. 1805). Blake’s imaginative artwork is to get us to this position: to enter this image. That is, to participate in the process, the movement – to become artists ourselves, and start to recreate the universe.

A different kind of event is seen in The Transfiguration (c. 1800). The role of the attendant figures is important here. This event is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2–10, Luke 9:28–36); in Mark’s account:

Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2–4)

This is a moment in which Christ’s divinity is supremely manifest: he appears in glory, and the Father’s voice announces from the clouds that this is his Son (Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35). The subject presents a challenge to the artist, namely to depict a process of transformation in a single frame. Blake also flattens the perspective so that the figures are all positioned on the same plane. Thus, Christ is brought closer to the prophets and the Apostles within the picture frame, and the entire group is closer to the viewer within the pictorial space. Blake therefore presents a more intimate encounter with the transfigured Christ than Raphaelesque depictions of the subject.

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The Trans-figuration. As with all of Blake’s images, this is not therefore a depiction of a scene. It is an encounter between Blake and the viewer, the image itself a doorway into interpretation and transfiguration (of the viewer’s imagination, participating in it). As Billingsley suggests, the “Transfiguration”, together with the images of “Resurrection” and “Ascension”, are “subjects which are all moments of transition or regeneration”, and which in Blake’s depictions “take on an apocalyptic imperative to transform the individual into the Human Form Divine.”

Moses and Elijah (shown with his visionary attributes of fire and a wheel) kneel at either side of Christ. The recumbent Apostles represent a range of responses to the transfigured Christ. Blake depicts the three Apostles at different stages of waking to see Christ in his glory: the central figure is still asleep; the one on the right is startled, and shields himself with his right arm; the figure on the left looks up, captivated, at the sight of Christ. The last is a Blakean innovation from conventions of depicting the subject, where the Apostles are usually shown shielding themselves from the light of the transfiguration.

For Blake, that illumination is not a supernatural manifestation of Christ’s unique divinity, but a sign of his perfect embodiment of the Human Form Divine. Thus, the Apostle on the left, and the two prophets, are able to behold that illumination without guarding their gaze, whereas the other two Apostles represent inadequate modes of perception. While Blake usually depicts Apostles as figures who respond astutely to Christ, the deficient response of those here serves as a reminder to Blake’s viewer against complacency. Blake emphasises that embodying the Human Form Divine is an endeavour that requires constant striving, not merely going through the motions of being a follower of Jesus.

The viewer of The Transfiguration is therefore presented with a range of possible responses to Christ, and so we are invited to consider our own engagement with him. Although it is difficult to determine the object of Christ’s own gaze, his unusual gesture (hands raised in front of his chest, palms facing outwards) engages the viewer, thus inviting us into the light and company of his transfiguration and not to slumber in an inadequate state of vision.

Within the biblical watercolours, this design is a fitting end to Blake’s depictions of Jesus’ public ministry, representing a community of Imagination engendered through Christ and into which the viewer is invited. This is the central aim of Blake’s art: Jesus who lived, died and rose again is the ultimate type of the Human Form Divine, which is the true state that each of us should embody and thereby become a Divine Body of individuals, as seen here in the friends and followers of Jesus. The biblical watercolours are Blake’s most extensive pictorial engagement with the public ministry of Jesus. They show in more perceptible ways how the viewer can internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration in order to become part of the community of Imagination.

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Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute in the University of Manchester. The above article is an edited excerpt form her terrific book The Visionary Art of William Blake : Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination (2018). Too find out more about the book, please click here.

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