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Blake’s story of creation

 Book of Urizen

In the Book of Urizen, Blake retells the story of creation, and includes in that telling many engravings.  This, “And left a round globe of blood, Trembling upon the Void” appears to be God’s creation of the world.  God is shown here in the process of forming the world; He is bent over with the colors of creation surrounding Him.  Blake chooses not to depict God’s face, but rather shows Him bent over, with hair streaming down upon His creation.  This flow of hair appears to represent the flow of imagination, and here illustrates the immense possibility which the imagination can provide and its inherent importance in the world’s connection to God.  Blake believed very strongly in the imagination’s abilities and the truths which it could reveal.  Here he depicts the ultimate creation, God’s creation, and he depicts it in such a way as to suggest that the pouring forth of the world came from God’s own imagination.  In addition to this, the strength of God and what seems to be strain with which he uses His strength illustrates the struggle of creation.  By representing this struggle Blake emphasizes the love and interest that God has in His creation.  For Him to bend forth and open his mind upon a newly forming world involves an intricate connection, a deep investment and love in His creation.  Thus this image of God creating the world is also very much a depiction of God’s relationship to it.  The representation of the world flowing from God, whose muscles strain with effort in the process, shows God’s deep involvement in His creation, and by depicting the creation as a continuous flow from God’s imagination Blake illustrates the investment and importance which that creation holds for God.

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St. Roch Asking the Virgin Mary to Heal Victims of the Plague

St. Roch Asking the Virgin Mary to Heal the Victims of the PlagueIn St. Roch Asking the Virgin Mary to Heal Victims of the Plague by Jacques Louis David St. Roch is seen kneeling amidst the agony of the Plague’s various victims.  Below Mary sit three figures, two of which are clearly in pain and desperate for her help.  These two, the woman and young boy, have faces of despair and they cling to each other in their suffering.  The man in front however, seems resigned to his fate; he looks not up at Mary but straight ahead.  His hand is placed, palm up, on his lap in a sign of defeat, and his face holds an expression which seems to almost challenge the viewer.  Above him St. Roch begs Mary for her help, his cheeks pink with strain.  Interestingly, his pink cheeks exactly mirror those of baby Jesus who sits in Mary’s arms.  In fact, their overall positions are completely parallel, both depicted from the side with their faces turned up towards Mary.  Their interaction with the Virgin Mother, however, is in stark contrast.  Jesus holds Mary’s face in a loving, almost playful way, while St. Roch turns toward her in desperation and terror.  Mary’s reaction to St. Roch’s plea, with her finger pointing in accusation, seems contradictory to the love she and Jesus share.  However, the analogous position of Jesus and St. Roch suggests that despite the seemingly disapproving finger, Mary’s treatment of St. Roch will ultimately be equivalent to her treatment of Jesus.  Christ, in His mirroring of St. Roch seems to be interceding for him, calling on his mother to give St. Roch her love and aid, just as she gives it to Him as she holds Him closely in her arms.



In C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Duffers are a group of creatures who live isolated on island.  These Dufflepuds have only one leg, with a very large foot, an attribute which they were given as punishment by a magician.  These creatures, which are directly related to the monopod of medieval times, reflect Lewis’s education in medieval mythology.  But more importantly there place in the story reveals their connection to the other monstrous races, which were used during the Crusades as examples of creatures who needed to be converted.  In The Voyage the Dufflepuds make themselves invisible because they have been “uglified”, and they are only made visible again by Lucy.  Lucy and the others traveling on the Dawn Treader discover the island and its inhabitants while on a journey of discovery, and proceed to teach them useful skills and maneuvers for their single leg.  This discovery of an invisible mythological creature directly relates to the Crusades, and its mission to find the various races around the world and convert them to Christianity.  The ugliness of the Dufflepuds was given to them as punishment, just as during the Crusades the ugliness of the monstrous race was given to them for their sins; the Dufflepuds are invisible, just as were the monsters of medieval times; and both, most obviously, have only one foot.  The key difference, of course, is that here the monopods are actually found, and in so being are given help and guidance from the members of the Dawn Treader.  The pleasant and gentle aspect of the two groups’ interactions is in stark contrast to the brutality of the Crusades.  Here Lewis, by revealing the mystery of the monster, removes the fear of the unknown, and in so doing removes the justification for the brutality of Crusading conversion.

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Tympanum at Vezelay

Tympanum at VezelayThe Tympanum of the central portal at Vezelay St. Madeleine depicts a different scene than most tympanums of the time.  Rather than the usual portrayal of the Last Judgment, this tympanum depicts the Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles.  This difference in imagery was chosen specifically to help justify the Crusades, in which the tympanum would play a central role (the first and second Crusades were announced at the church, and it was also a staging point of the third).  Here Jesus stands as the central figure, giving to His apostles the mission of converting the world to Christianity.  Along the arch there are various scenes of people who have been, or who are soon to be, christened.  On the lintel there is an additional group, a group who was thought to live at the very ends of the earth.  These people, or the monstrous race, here include several classical medieval mythological creatures, such as a pygmy (who needs a ladder to mount his horse), a creature with very large ears, and another man covered in feathers.  These ugly and bizarre creatures were added to the lintel to help justify the Crusades in their mission to convert such monstrous races, whose sins were so great that they were physically apparent in deformity and ugliness.  But these depictions reveal something else, an inherent fear amongst many at the time, a fear of the unknown.  The world was largely undiscovered at this time, certainly they did not know how much more of it was left to find, and so this monstrous race was thought to live in some foreign and completely unfamiliar land, and these creatures which they had never seen had such sins that they had made them ugly.  And it is this idea of an unseen and unknown evil which underlies the inclusion of the monstrous race, a fear which justifies their being hunted down and then converted or killed.  This fear of the unknown provided the impetus and justification for the Crusades, just as that same fear would eventually provide reason for the trying and killing of “witches” in the 16th and 17th centuries.   

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Doubting Thomas

The Incredulity of Thomas

In The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio portrays in rather grotesque detail the scene of John 20: 24-29, where Thomas proclaims that he will not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he feels the wounds himself.  In this portrayal we see Jesus guiding Thomas’s hand deep into his wound, with two onlookers studying the event from behind.  Jesus appears completely calm and unaffected by the inspection, while Thomas’s face holds wrinkles of concentration and awe.  The placement of four heads united in the center of the painting is a classical depiction of the search for truth, and the search here ends in the detailed inspection of the body of Christ.  The black background provides further illustration of this discovering of truth, with the four men illuminated from the darkness by the light which appears to emanate from Jesus.  The scene is at once shocking and complex; the extreme familiarity with which Thomas’s finger digs into Jesus’ wound is startling, but it simultaneously reveals an aspect of spiritual discovery.  Thomas here gains knowledge of God through a personal examination of Christ, and the physicality of it reveals a very real and tangent search for truth.  Thomas’s inspection of the wound is very much of this world, but the result of that inspection is a knowledge which is entirely spiritual.  We find this scene shocking because it seems so realistic, and the realism is a means of showing how an ordinary person can discover spiritual truth through worldly interactions.  Here Thomas literally pulls the skin of Jesus back to understand Him as God, but Caravaggio demonstrates through this that physical encounters with the world can provide a spiritual knowledge, and that in searching and finding knowledge of God the truth transcends the person from the physical world to the spiritual one.

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David’s The Coronation of Napolean

Painting by David of the coronation of NapoleonThis propaganda piece by David doesn’t initially appear to have any obvious religious symbolism. It does though, upon closer inspection, reveal religion’s persistent role in a society which had for years sought to separate the Church from the state. Religion’s role in the French revolution was dynamic; the National Assembly initially tried to control it and Napoleon eventually sought to separate the Church and state completely. The Catholic Church in particular was not particularly popular during the revolution due to its perceived opulence and overindulgence. With these themes of religion in mind, the inclusion of the Pope in David’s painting seems totally out of place. David certainly didn’t include the approving Pope in order to give an accurate account of the day’s proceedings, because although the Pope did attend the ceremony he was by no means in full agreement with the crowning of the new Emperor. Certainly by depicting the Pope as submissive to Napoleon David reveals the French people’s defeat of the Church, portraying how they now have the ability to turn the Pope’s will as they wish. But by including the Pope at all, whether in agreement or disagreement, David indicates that the Church’s approval was still a prominent determinant of the king’s authority, revealing the lingering attachment of the French to the stability that the Church provided. Interestingly, the idea to change the Pope’s expression from one of scorn to one of blessing came from Napoleon himself. The Emperor better than anyone understood the need to establish authenticity as ruler, and despite the revolution and the separation of Church and state, Napoleon recognized that the French people continued to lean to the Church for reassurance and validation. And so the Pope stands depicted here submissive, approving, and in essence conquered by the French people, but he stands nonetheless, and it is his presence alone which speaks loudest about the place of religion, and specifically the Catholic Church, in France at this time.


Image credit- Wikimedia Commons