Christ as the Artistic Genius

William Blake was an artist, author, inventor, and a Christian, or so he said. His Christianity was radical, especially for his time (1757-1827). I would add that it still is radical today. Centred in a strongly Christian society, Blake re-envisioned Christianity, creating his own views on Christian teachings, which were inspired through a number of influences. Yet not whimsically inspired, for he was culturally aware, and familiar with many major literary and artistic works, both contemporary and ancient. He also had an esoteric side to this thought, drawing from writers including Jakob Böhme, Paracelsus, and Immanuel Swedenborg.

Blake’s Christianity differed from orthodox denominations of his era. While he held to many of the moral teachings involving how to love and live, and referred to the Bible regularly (through his own interpretation), he was not known to attend a church regularly or any other religious gatherings. His writing included ideas that breached traditional Christian decorum, including a text entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which describes an inversion to Christianity as a truer teaching of wisdom (contained in a Bible of Hell), and promotes the liberated energy of the devil over the self-righteous rules of angels. Blake’s art also included images of demons, spirits, and other supernatural beings. Despite this, Blake called himself a Christian, and encouraged others to also be Christians. In a sense, his vision spanned both heaven and hell.

Blake, William. The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun. 1805. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

After Blake’s death, his work entered the hands of a follower, Frederick Tatham, who came to think of it as inspired by Satan and so destroyed a number of works. Blake’s associate, John Linnell, also in contact with Tatham, encouraged the censorship of Blake’s work where it was irreverent to Christianity.

So if Blake says he is a Christian, then one must review what exactly this means.

He was born over a century after the end of the Reformation, at a time when Christianity was open to a far greater variety of interpretations. He was also part of the dawn of Romanticism, an artistic movement that values individual imagination, emotions, creativity, and spirituality. He saw art (visual and literary) as the way to access God, to draw divine vision into the world, through artistic works that would in turn open their readers or viewers to their own divine imagination.

Not only did he often consider his works visions from the divine, but he constructed them as mythic narratives, showing how to awaken to a state of vision. Blake recreates Western mythology in a new light, offering mythological bridges that join his vision of the divine with the world, so that the reader or viewer can cross such bridges with their imagination.

In short, to Blake, religion is the practice of art. Art (in the sense of the arts) is worship, work, and ritual. Yet this does not mean Blake would agree that all art is such. To understand what he meant by the practice of art requires study of his work (both textual and visual). To the artist or writer inspired by Blake, there is a wealth of material that can guide an in-depth Blakean practice of art, or at the least, offer some ideas towards Blakean influence in one’s own creative practice. On a broader scale, art is the art of living as a human being, in whatever work one does, which Blake also relates through his vision.

Religion is viewed quite differently today than in Blake’s time. Blake lived in a pervasively Christian society, and his creative practice was his communication with his surroundings. We must avoid jumping to stereotypical conclusions about what is meant by religious terms Blake uses, and look deeper into what Blake meant by them. He drew from Christianity as well as other influences, and he was radical for his time – so much so that he only began to be acknowledged fifty to one hundred years after his death, and even today remains obscure.

To apply the principles of Blakean art and writing today would require an adaptation of Blake’s ideas to one’s current context. This is certainly possible, since Blake, although living two centuries prior, remains relevant, perhaps even necessary, today. (I will not go into the reasons for this here, as this is a whole other topic.) His works deal with larger ideas spanning the mythology and history of Western civilisation, while also focusing on what is perennially human and humane. To apply Blakean principles to artistic and literary practice is to give life to the symbol of Christ as the exemplary artistic genius, and to the human being (the artist) as a creative, living fountain of God.

Is Your Vision Fantasy or Imagination?

William Blake’s oeuvre contains a range of works, which, though each is unique, participate for the most part in a common mythology. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is one such work, a long (100-plate) illustrated poem; actually his magnum opus. Jerusalem explores the process by which humanity (represented by Albion) is restored to a divine culture based in loving relationships, whose arts and sciences are inspired by creative genius.

At one point in the story, the hero-protagonist, Los, who is a blacksmith and artistic genius, becomes roofed in and thereby trapped within the world of the materialistic world-view.  He is now isolated from the Vision of Eternity, no longer able to access this vision as a living experience of communion with the universe, and beyond.

This vision, for Blake and the Romantics in general, is the imagination, which is not the same as fantasy, or fancy, as we might consider such today. Fancy (as it is differentiated by the Romantics) is a private form of imagination, limited within the mind of the individual, which is not imagination proper. This differs from imagination (sometimes written capitalised, Imagination), which is defined by the Romantics as fundamental to the universe, not confined to the private mind of the individual: it is the primal creative power of existence (whether arising from Nature or the Divine), which human beings participate in. This participation is often described as accessible through the power of individual genius. The artist, through their genius, may share in the creative process inherent in the universe itself.

Fancy differs – though is often mistaken for imagination – in that remains within individual images of the personal unconscious, the creations wrought around the individual ego-persona, with all its misconceptions, limitations, and biases. Imagination in contrast is considered universal, broader even than the collective human unconscious . This is the basic difference between imagination and fancy.

So, at the point in Jerusalem (around plate 19) where Los is trapped within the material world, humanity (represented by Albion) withdraws within itself, into the inner, lunar worlds of personal fancy. There Albion meets with Jerusalem, who is his eternal feminine counterpart, though she also trapped within the rock-like material-consciousness, due to the oppression of materialism. The individual imagination has been reduced to personal fantasy.

But Blake’s mythos ends on a high note; it is romantic-comedy, not tragedy. Eventually, when Albion and Jerusalem are both liberated from the reductionist world-view, they merge into the infinite creative imagination as the divine integrated human, and take their place once again in eternity as a single being. Albion becomes the creative will, and Jerusalem, the capacity for loving relationship.

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, copy E, plate 2. 1804-c. 1820. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
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