Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell

Posted on 8/27/2011

Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell: an illustration by William Blake to Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1806. The semi-transparent Death, is on the right. Satan, is on the left, confronting Death who bars his way from Hell to Earth. Between them is Sin, who is depicted as half female half serpent. She reveals to Satan that she is his daughter and that Death is their incestuous child.

Blake was inspired by Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) and produced two sets of watercolour illustrations (c. 1808) which depict the Biblical story of the Fall of Man through disobedience to God’s will. Even though Blake loved and became immersed in the world of Paradise Lost he felt it misrepresented God by presenting him as a judgmental authoritative figure. Blake’s own belief, of course, was that Man, his Imagination, and God, were one and the same.

Blake wrote the famous poem Jerusalem, as the preface for Milton: A Poem. Jerusalem is lengthy, difficult and apocalyptic, with a fascinating hallucinatory quality. At the time many of Blake’s contemporaries concluded that he had gone insane - including Blake’s own patron William Hayley -who appears in the poem as Satan.

In terms of a storyline, Milton returns from Heaven to Earth as a meteor, a “falling star,” and unites with Blake via the Imagination (and Blake’s left foot) and together they explore the cosmic relationship between the living poet and his great predecessor in a way that echoes how Dante invoked Virgil in the Divine Comedy.

Not long before Blake's painting, the political satirist James Gillray made use of Milton in the infamous 1792 caricature, which shows the Queen in the middle, protecting Prime Minister Pitt (Death) with the King's crown on from an irate Chancellor Thurlow (Satan):

And before that the original composition and unfinished oil sketch by William Hogarth. 1740.