A Vision of the Last Judgement by William Blake

William Blake

A Vision of the Last Judgement, 1808, Pencil, pen, and watercolour on paper, 50.3 x 40 mm, Petworth House, Petworth, Sussex, UK; The Egremont Collection, 486270, Derrick E. Witty / National Trust Photo Library / Art Resource, NY

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And the Truth Will Set You Free

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Judith Wolfe

This watercolour is an earlier version of a monumental Vision of the Last Judgement that William Blake painted in tempera and gold but that disappeared shortly after his death in 1827. The composition teems with the energy of a hundred figures, whose movements upwards (to the enthroned Christ’s right) and downwards (to Christ’s left) creates the impression of a single living shape: a human skull.

It is within this human skull that Blake imagines the Last Judgement to take place: not as the final act of history, directed by an external authority, but as an apocalyptic transformation of the mind. ‘If the spectator could enter into these images in his imagination’, he writes about the painting, ‘approaching them on the fiery chariot of his contemplative thought … then would he arise from the grave’ (Blake in Gilchrist 1863: 193).

The scene is not, like more traditional Last Judgements, intended as an image of what the world will, on the last day, turn out truly to be. Rather, it is intended to represent, and therefore to liberate, the creative energy of the imagination. The very fantasticalness of the iconography of the Last Judgement, which in more orthodox depictions is a potential embarrassment to faith, is here its lifeblood.

The Last Judgement, in Blake’s hands, does not fix the shape and meaning of things for all eternity, but on the contrary keeps them in an eternal dance. For the reader of Revelation, this artistic approach may jar with the text, which has a great decisiveness; but in setting our minds on fire with possibilities beyond those readily apparent around us, the painting also feeds into the work of that text by waking a desire for the overflowing joy promised in the chapter following it.

 

References

Gilchrist, Alexander (ed.). 1863. ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’, in Life of William Blake, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan), pp. 185–202