Search This Blog

Sunday 23 February 2014

Satan, Sin and Death

The dramatic scene depicted above is the work of the 18th century painter and engraver William Hogarth. This particular engraving is based on a painting he produced circa 1735-40, but it’s easier to see what’s going on in this black-and-white version. It’s a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan, en route from Hell to Earth, encounters two strange figures guarding the Gates of Hell:

Before the gates there sat on either side a formidable Shape. The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair, but ended foul in many a scaly fold, voluminous and vast – a serpent armed with mortal sting. [...] The other Shape – if shape it might be called, that shape had none distinguishable in member, joint, or limb. Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, for each seemed either. Black it stood as Night, fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, and shook a dreadful dart.

The first figure is the personification of Sin, while the second figure is Death. It’s interesting that Satan himself is portrayed in relatively heroic form, although his facial features look more monstrous in the original painted version than in this engraving.

“Satan, Sin and Death” is an unusual departure for Hogarth, most of whose works are satirical in nature (see for example Paranormal investigation, 18th century style and Another historical myth-conception). Hogarthian satire was pretty gentle stuff, aimed at broad social classes rather than at specific individuals. By the end of the 18th century, however, all that had changed – and political caricatures were every bit as viciously ad hominem as they are today.

James Gillray (1756 – 1815) was one of the first great political cartoonists. His own variation on the theme of “Sin, Death and the Devil”, dating from 1792, is shown below. Death is represented by the Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt the Younger, while the Devil is Pitt’s Lord Chancellor, Baron Thurlow. They are separated by the figure of Sin in the person of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. Even today, the depiction of the present Queen in such an unflattering way would be frowned on in some quarters (although Conspiracy Theorists might detect a resemblance between Her Majesty and Milton’s personification of Sin, in that both of them are half reptilian).
William Blake (mentioned previously in A 19th Century Contactee and Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel) was born the year after Gillray. He had something of an obsession with Milton’s Paradise Lost, producing at least 30 illustrations based on it. The earlier of Blake’s two versions of “Satan, Sin and Death” (circa 1807) is depicted below. Like Hogarth, Blake makes the figure of Satan look surprisingly heroic... while his version of Death is a semi-transparent ghost.

No comments: