‘An entirely miraculous and supernatural event’

The post below is one of a series of Advent-themed images I have selected from the collections of the John Rylands Library which are being posted throughout December (not a full digital advent calendar, but based on the principle of that format).

I was, naturally, delighted that it was possible to include today’s image, and it merits a bit more unpacking than included in the short caption I was asked to write for the Rylands blog.

Usually, images of the Nativity feature a group of figures gathered reverently around the infant Christ, who is usually sleeping in a manger or lying on the ground. Blake’s design breaks pictorial convention, depicting the Christ Child leaping in the air, as if in a moment of miraculous birth. On the left, Mary swoons into Joseph’s arms, and on the right, another woman reaches out towards the leaping child – this latter woman is usually read as Elizabeth, and the child in her lap as John the Baptist.

The engraving by William Bell Scott is from a book of etchings after Blake’s works published in 1878. The full book can be viewed in LUNA. It’s worth comparing the engraving to the original painting, which can be viewed via the Blake Archive as whilst the engraving captures the spirit of Blake’s painting, certain details are lost or distorted – colour being the most obvious loss, and the shape of the star a notable distortion.

Scholars have suggested a number of possible textual sources for Blake’s innovative image of the Nativity, which I will not rehearse here; whatever his inspiration, it is a thought-provoking interpretation of this seasonal subject.

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

This extraordinary image of the Nativity is an engraving by William Bell Scott after William Blake’s painting (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Bell Scott was fascinated by Blake’s design, which he described as depicting ‘an entirely miraculous and supernatural event.’ This extraordinary image of the Nativity is an engraving by William Bell Scott after William Blake’s painting (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Bell Scott was fascinated by Blake’s design, which he described as depicting ‘an entirely miraculous and supernatural event.’

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