William Blake, easily one of the best artists of the Romantic period, was commissioned by Thomas Butts to produce a “Nativity Ode” that illustrated John Milton‘s poem, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. If you haven’t already read the poem, do so. Stop what you’re doing right now and read it. Even if you’re not Christian, read it. It’s beautiful.
But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
Time is our tedious Song should here have ending,
Heav’ns youngest-teemed Star
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending.
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.
Blake used pen and watercolour over pencil for the smooth, pastel look you see in the image above.
Something I love about this picture is how none of the angels are looking at Baby Jesus. Instead, they look away, with their backs turned to Him. They’re sitting serviceable, as Milton writes, protecting the newborn. As you can see if you look through my other Christmas Countdown pictures, this stance is really unusual for Nativity scenes. Milton and Blake offer a new perspective: instead of pushing each other to get a chance to see the baby, everyone calmly takes his position outside of the stable. Swords drawn, the angels are ready to prevent anyone from wrecking this precious moment.
If you have a couple of minutes, check out some of William Blake’s other illustrations. My personal favourites are those from Dante’s Divine Comedy, although there’s so much to discover on the Digital Blake Archive. You can also read Blake’s own poetry here.