Scriptural grandeur, engraved

In 1823, William Blake was commissioned by his prosperous artist friend, John Linnell, to make a series of engravings illustrating the Biblical Book of Job. Blake began by borrowing back from a previous patron a group of watercolors depicting Job's ordeal that he had made more than a decade before. He then made tracings of the watercolors and based the engravings on them.

The page reproduced here is Plate 12 of 21 (not including the title page). In format, it resembles the others in the series. Each page has a central rectangular image surrounded by scriptural passages (not all of them from Job) and peripheral borders and figures drawn in outline. While the marginal motifs often have great decorative charm, they cannot be dismissed as ornamentation, for Blake was a tremendously deliberate artist who missed no opportunity to enrich the meaning of his work. At the bottom of this plate, for example, is the figure of a bearded old man, resembling Job himself, asleep. This figure probably alludes to the previous plate, which shows Job sleepless on his bed, tormented by Satanic visions of a vengeful God. Blake repeatedly used sleep as a metaphor for the soul's forgetfulness of immortality, its submersion in the material world.

The key inscription on this plate is ''I am Young & ye are very Old wherefore I was afraid,'' spoken by Elihu to Job and the friends who have come to commiserate and remonstrate with him. Blake apparently regarded Elihu's entrance as a dramatic and symbolic turning point in Job's story. Not only is Elihu's address to the others the only action depicted in this plate, but the image here is a breath of calm between two plates that are charged with as much visual energy as Blake's mastery of engraving could wring from the medium. In Plate 11, Job's confrontation with his own false, egoistic concept of God reaches an extreme from which, in Plate 12, he seems to have recoiled into a chastised calm that permits Elihu's more elevated understanding to be heard. The images in Plates 11 and 13 surge with graphic detail and what one critic has called Blake's ''flaming line.'' Here, by contrast, the graphic technique itself seems becalmed, especially in the velvety strokes that define the night sky and the background landscape. The previous plates portray symbolically the exhaustion of Job's and his friends' human understanding of the misfortunes that have befallen him. At this point it is time for the voice of innocence, rather than of experience, to be heard. Elihu enters, his left hand pointing upwards and seeming to join in the constellation of stars, the communicator of a more spiritual point of view. By the plate that follows, Blake would apparently have us understand that Job has taken Elihu's innocent inspiration to heart, for in it he and his wife see God (symbolic of their hearing him) answer from ''out of the Whirlwind.''

Each plate in the Job sequence is a marvel of design in itself, but it is really only possible to appreciate the brilliance of Blake's art and the spirituality of his reading of Job when each image is considered in the context of the whole series. Little understood in his lifetime, Blake's art has since been appreciated by scholars and critics of art and literature throughout the world.

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