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.
Gilchrist, Alexander (ed.). 1863. ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’, in Life of William Blake, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan), pp. 185–202
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.