Art-icles: William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar

I am going to start pretty subjectively as I get back into the swing of writing about art, basing most of my opinions on formal analysis rather than extensive research, but as these articles go on I hope to get more scholarly in my approach. For an explanation please read my introduction. For our first installment, Emily Graham, science, comics, music writer and editor extraordinaire has sent me William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. Despite his status as a prolific artist, writer and all around free spirit of the British Romanitic movement, I have not actually looked at Blake since my high school British Literature class. I liked his work, but my main exposure during that class was the Monty Python sketch where whenever anyone says “mattress” Mr. Lambert puts a bag over his head and the rest of the cast has to stand in a tea chest and sing Jerusalem at the top of their lungs. Anyway, Blake was known as kind of a weirdo in his time and ours, much like the cast of Monty Python. His work is still amazing (so is theirs).

Nebuchadnezzar is a print with added watercolor from the 1790s. There were multiple imprints of this work, and this image looks to be most similar to the Tate imprint (owned by the Tate in London). It shows the biblical Babylonian king prostrate during his time forced by God to live as a beast. In this story God proves to Nebuchadnezzar that God is the King of Kings, and can choose how low or how high his subjects are by banishing the King from his realm and forcing him to live as an animal for “seven times.”[1] It is basically a story of hubris, the rise and fall straight out of The Histories (though don’t tell God I said that).

This work of art seems fairly straightforward; Blake is simply depicting a biblical scene as many others have done before him. However, beyond the haunting view of this biblical king, Blake’s outspoken views on religion don’t mesh with his work as a simple pictorial representation of God’s might, warning others that “he is able to bring low/those who walk in pride.”[2] Though religious, Blake was a known questioner of many tenants of Christianity, especially the all-powerful divinity of God.[3]

This observation leads me to examine Nebuchadnezzar as an exploration into the relationship of humans and animals. The Bible repeats over and over that the king, in this state of savagery, is no more than a beast, made to live like the animals do. Blake continues this fixation. The king also seems to be covered in hair, though it could possibly be sinewy muscle.

His body is rendered extremely animalistic; Blake’s famed abilities as a printer are clear. The background is shown in a loose line, while the body of the King is modeled and built up to an idealized vision of a muscular male body. The strength and beauty of Nebuchadnezzar’s body betrays where he has come from; he is clearly not actually a beast, and once was a great man. The long beard and striking finger and toenails are straight out of The Bible, where it describes how the king’s “hair grew long as eagle’s feathers and his nails became like bird’s claws.”[4] The power of God has brought this formerly powerful man to his hands and knees, developing animalistic qualities.

The most human part of the entire composition is the haunted eyes of the king. He gazes at the ground, face twisted in an expression of shock and disgust. This could be the moment of reason, when the king recognizes his humanity, and how God was able to take it away from him. The only real difference between this figure, the most powerful king in the world, and an animal is self-recognition. In the Bible, the only difference is God’s will, but with knowledge of Blake’s opinion on the strength of God’s will we can allow the interpretation to widen. This reading into the subtext of the story, and how this story is depicted, leads to an exploration of themes beyond religion and onto the subtleties of the difference between humans and other animals.

If we take this art to comment on the importance of self-recognition, or the relative similarity of man and beast, we have reached a bigger truth than the straightforward moral of the biblical story. Of course, through literary interpretation you could probably find similar themes in the words of The Bible. I find that biblical artwork is very useful for exploring the interdisciplinary elements of the fine arts, as there is visual communication with a basis in “verbal” communication. The two working together will shed more light on the meaning of the story than either isolated, which is why I couldn’t help but include quotes from the source of the story. I hope this was as interesting for all of you as it was for me, and please comment with other interpretations, or even to point out holes in mine.

 


[1] In Daniel Chapter 4 verse 16

[2] In Daniel Chapter 4 verse 37

[3] Blake, Gerald Eades Bentley (1975). William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul. p. 30. FIX

[4] In Daniel Chapter 4 verse 33

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