William Blake’s illustrations to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy have been described as the ‘glorious culmination’ of his art. Written in the early fourteenth century, this epic poem recounts Dante’s imaginary pilgrimage through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. Commissioned by his last patron, John Linnell, Blake produced 102 drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy between 1824 and his death in 1827. These drawings range from preliminary sketches to highly finished watercolours. Only seven of the compositions were engraved for Linnell’s proposed publication. Blake’s personal theology led him not only to illustrate but to comment upon, and even criticize, Dante’s Catholic interpretation of salvation, stating that ‘Dante saw Devils where I see none – I see only good’. The richly coloured Dante running from the Three Beasts depicts the opening incident in the story. Dante, fleeing the dark woods, inhabited by ferocious animals that symbolize worldly sins, encounters the Roman poet Virgil, who becomes his guide through the many terrifying circles of Hell and Purgatory.
Edited from text by Alisa Bunbury from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 79-81