William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job does not only offer us a unique example of the artist engaging with just one biblical book. It also–in the way it relates text to image–evinces crucial elements of features of Blake’s other illuminated books—from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience of the 1790s to Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion of the opening decade or so of the nineteenth century.
Plate 17 proclaims ‘Now my Eye seeth thee’. As in patristic interpretations of biblical theophanies (cf. John 12:41), Blake interprets the divine theophany in the whirlwind (Job 38–41) as a vision of Jesus Christ. The inclusion of passages from the Gospel of John intensifies this Christological interpretation. Job’s understanding of God has changed from transcendent and threatening monarch (who can become monstrous, as in Plate 11) to immanent divine presence: ‘At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you’ (John 14:20).
Blake chose never to address Job’s words ‘Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6). His Job does not grovel before a transcendent deity, but as Plate 18 shows us, he is raised to his feet by his theophany. In these three engravings, we see how this is the culmination of an unfolding transformation, as Job moves from being prone in Plate 11, to kneeling in Plate 17, to standing in Plate 18. Now that his insight has been transformed, he may stand before God, and his body—like his prayers—becomes a spiritual, living, sacrifice.
In Blake’s illustrations, priority is given to centrally placed images. Plate 17 marks the moment when the contents of the books are actually seen by the reader, and we discover from the words written on the pages that the one whom Job and his wife have seen in the theophany is none other than Christ, the divine in the human. Here is the proper ordering of text and image: an ordering in which the image is given priority and the text illustrates the dominant image. The books are situated in the margins of the image and so should function as marginal comment on the images, which are central to what Blake wants to communicate. Words are now in their proper place.
Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job offers not only an understanding of one biblical book but also an insight into how the Bible as a whole should be interpreted. The book’s series of engravings move sequentially through the text, but the centrally placed images are the prime guide to its meaning.
That what is seen must be given priority is reinforced by the terrifying night vision that discloses to Job where the path of an entirely letter-based religiosity will lead. The struggle to obey the word without the illumination of the spirit brings only terror.
Blake’s alternative is to make the various and abundant biblical texts that he reproduces reflect on what is seen in the images. And it is these images that offer a key to the subject matter of the book in Blake’s estimation: a book which is about the ways in which ‘the doors of perception’ of Job are cleansed (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14).
With the book of Job as his ally, Blake’s art also offers a way of engaging with the issue of the relationship between words and images more generally. Though neither is an end in itself, words for Blake are always a complement to images. Blake did not despise discursive, diachronic reflection in words, but he absolutely prioritized the synchronic impact of an image.
Illustrations of the Book of Job thus decisively reveals the secondary place which Blake gave to the rational and the literal in the intellectual process. Priority is given to spirit, energy, desire, and above all the power of visionary imagination, in order to enable other perspectives on life. The series as a whole thereby exemplifies Blake’s deep conviction about what is ‘shewn in the Gospel’, for (as he observes) Jesus ‘prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 6).
Butlin, Martin. 1981. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Erdman, David V. (ed.). 2008. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 35, 39.
Lindberg, Bo. 1973. William Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job (Åbo Akademi)
Paley, Morton D. 2003. The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Rowland, Christopher. 2010. Blake and the Bible (Yale University Press)
Tannenbaum, Leslie. 2017. Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
42 Then Job answered the Lord:
2“I know that thou canst do all things,
and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.
3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee;
6therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliʹphaz the Teʹmanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” 9So Eliʹphaz the Teʹmanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naʹamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14And he called the name of the first Jemiʹmah; and the name of the second Keziʹah; and the name of the third Kerʹen-hapʹpuch. 15And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17And Job died, an old man, and full of days.