William Blake was affected throughout his life by the power of Revelation, its beasts and its vision of the future via the New Jerusalem. He produced watercolours and engravings on themes from Revelation during the 1790s and early 1800s as well as a series of watercolours on Revelation for his patron, Thomas Butts, between 1800 and 1805. His depictions of the city are perhaps the most influential of all imagined Jerusalems in the British artistic tradition.
For Blake Jerusalem was the antithesis of Babylon—which, in his mind, was to be equated with London—and the locus of a new birth. He expanded on this idea at great length in his epic illustrated poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820). The image of the New Jerusalem shown here is, on the face of it, a fairly literal visualisation of the River of Life in Revelation 22:1–2. The city of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 is not depicted. A river flows from the sun in the background—probably God’s throne of Revelation 22:1—through a street of the ‘city’, encircled by fructifying trees of life. The banks of the river are adorned with classical buildings, perhaps harking back to a nobler age, and the overall impression is one of space and light, in contrast to the dark and dirty London of Blake’s poems.
Although this New Jerusalem is peopled—in contrast to many of the earlier manuscript depictions where humankind is conspicuous by its absence—it is difficult to make out who the figures are. The androgynous figure dressed in white and swimming with his back to us may be Jesus, while the flying figure is probably an angel. In contrast to Blake’s other works, there is no manifest difference in size between the human figures and divine ones; it is of interest that Blake has included children in this vision of the New Jerusalem—perhaps suggesting that, in his view, one appears in heaven at the age at which one dies.
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