The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev 12:1–4) by William Blake

William Blake

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev 12:1–4), c.1803–05, Black ink and watercolour over traces of graphite and incised lines, 437 x 348 mm, Brooklyn Museum, 15.368, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, USA / Gift of William Augustus White / Bridgeman Images

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Seeing Everything Infinite

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And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth. (Revelation 12:4)

We might find The Great Red Dragon spell-binding but creepy. The scene is crudely gendered. The fault here, if there is one, is the Bible’s rather than William Blake’s. Revelation sets up programmatic contrasts: between the Woman attacked by the Dragon and the Whore of Babylon who rides a scarlet beast (17:3); and then between the Whore and the New Jerusalem ‘prepared as a bride for her husband’ (21:2). These female figures are cosmic and formal: the stereotyped extremes of femininity as seen by men. Blake’s defenceless Woman is an heir of this polarity. We would ourselves, I think, look in the ‘chambers’ of our brain (in Blake’s phrase) for a different cast of symbols.

Blake’s indivisible imagination and action have made him an icon of the political artist and visionary. He even took part in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Well, yes, he did; but only by mistake. His heroism lay elsewhere: in an indomitable spirit. Many of us may hope to see the world with Blake’s intensity. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed’, Blake wrote, ‘every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite’ (Blake 2008: 39). So it does, in Revelation. But how in practice are we to relate Revelation’s phantasmagorical splendours to any present calling to re-conceive and liberate the world?

Blake demands that we open our eyes and see. We may not, in the end, see what he saw. But we will no longer be able to deny the grandeur and—sometimes terrifying—appeal of the powers around us and within us. Blake saw more in the heavens than most of us ever will. ‘What it will be Questioned’, he asked, ‘when the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty’ (Blake 2008: 555–6).



Blake, William. 1956. The Letters of William Blake, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (New York: Macmillan)

———. 2008. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. by David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)

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