Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake

William Blake

Nebuchadnezzar, 1795–c.1805, Colour print, ink, and watercolour on paper, 543 x 725 mm, Tate; Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939, N05059, Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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The Balance of Powers

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William Blake viewed his artistic practice as a form of opposition to various kinds of domination, and the repressive and oppressive effects of power (Davis 1977: 43). 

If ever there was a story of domination it is the story of Nebuchadnezzar, whose greatness reached to heaven and his sovereignty to the ends of the earth (Daniel 4:22). Yet Blake’s interest in and depiction of this oligarch is not of his dominance, but his humiliation. 

Despite Blake’s initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution, his opposition to the dominant forces of his own day was not primarily political. He had a spiritual aim in mind, one of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’ so that the material world (with its sensuality and rationality) could be seen, through imagination, as it ultimately is—infinite (Blake 1979: 188).

To achieve this aim, Blake believed it was necessary to creatively balance the complementary opposites within human beings and societies. This is the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ about which he wrote. His belief in this balance was the ultimate impetus for his opposition to domineering forces, including the dominance of sensuality and reason, which were so antipathetic to imagination. 

It is the dominance of sensuality that Blake depicts in his hand-coloured print, Nebuchadnezzar. He based Nebuchadnezzar’s pose on Albrecht Dürer’s late fifteenth-century woodcut showing the medieval legend of the penance of St John Chrysostom. According to that story, the saint had himself succumbed to carnal and sensual temptation, and his chosen penance mirrored the degradation of Nebuchadnezzar (Wind 1937: 183). Blake likewise shows a human being who—by becoming a slave to sensuality—has reverted to the bestial: he is naked and on all fours with hair like feathers and nails like claws.

Nebuchadnezzar was part of Blake’s Twelve Large Colour Prints series in which, rather than there being an overarching narrative, the images seem to be linked by being paired with one another. His Nebuchadnezzar was paired with a Newton who represented the dominance of reason in eighteenth-century society, with its rational, scientific explanations for the world. Blake believed that both the rationalism and the sensuality he depicted in these two images repress the imagination. 

They serve as warnings which aim to open the doors of our perception.


References

Blake, William. 1979. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books)

Butlin, Martin. 1990. William Blake 1757–1827 (London: Tate Gallery Publications) 

Davis, Michael Justin. 1977. William Blake: A New Kind of Man (London: Elek)

Wind, Edgar. 1937. ‘The Saint as Monster’, Journal of the Warburg Institute 1.2: 183



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