Ancient of Days (1794)
by William Blake
Ancient of Days is a name for God in the Book of Daniel
The title "Ancient of Days" has been used as a source of inspiration in art and music,
denoting the creator's aspects of eternity combined with perfection.
William Blake's watercolour and relief etching entitled
"Ancient of Days" (1794) is one such example.
It was published originally as the frontispiece to the 1794 work
Europe a Prophecy.
Blake shows Urizen crouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background.
His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below.
Early critics of Blake noted the work as amongst his best,
and a favourite of the artist himself.
Blake illustrates The
Book of Proverbs 8:27:
"When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth".|
The subject is said to have been one of the 'visions' experienced by Blake and that he took an especial pleasure in producing the prints. The image was used as the 2006 paperback cover of Stephen Hawking's 2005 book God Created the Integers.
|I've used Blake's "Ancient of Days" on my first web page "Exploring Silicon Valley" (3-21-1996). The valley spirit linking heaven with earth is beautifully illustrated by Blake's The Ancient of Days, where God the Father appears as a Geometer, emerging out of the sun, a circle of fire (symbol of eternity) as he creates the world (temporality). His compass is at right angles of 90 degrees (square symbolizing earth), but also shaped like a "V" the valley of mystery from which all creation flows. The quest of "squaring the circle," while not mathematically feasible is philosophically possible via alchemy a spiritual transformation within our heart as we bring heaven (circle) to earth (square). Read more about Blake's visions in my essay, how he is a true prophet seeing the world wide web.|
Artworks Showing "God the Geometer"
God the Geometer (1450)
By Gautier de Metz
God the Geometer (1250)
Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee
God the Geometer (1240)
Bible Moralisée de Tolède
|In the Book of Wisdom 11:20, we read
"whirled away by the breath of your power.
But no, you ordered all things by measure, number, weight."
And in The
Book of Proverbs 8:27:
"When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth".
That's why the frontispiece of Bible Moralisee
showing God the Geometer (1250),|
is my favorite artwork of medieval times. The compass as any student knows is an essential instrument in learning geometry. And God created the world not with a clap of his hands "Poof" and the Earth came into existence, but used the compass to fashion it into being.
Medieval Woodcuts & Engravings Showing Use of Compass
Astrologer with Compass
By Albrecht Dürer (1501)
By Albrecht Dürer (1514)
By Hans Sebald Beham
By Jost Ammons
Postage Stamps Showing the Compass & Freemasons
Brazil 729, 60 centavos
Compass & City of Sao Paulo
France 732, 30 francs
Allegory with Compass
France 1368, 90 centimes
Masonic Lodge Emlem
Note: Above stamps were located in my
1975 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, Volumes I-III.
With catalogue #s, found them in Google Images, and downloaded from the web.
Click on stamp catalogoe # for image sources.
William Blake: The Compass & Freemasonry
Romania 1220, 40 bani
Newton with Compass (1795)
By William Blake
Tate Gallery, London
Great Queen St., London
Built between 1927-1933
Freemasons' Hall, London (circa 1809)
|Blake championed the imagination as the most important element of human existence
ran contrary to Enlightenment ideals of rationalism & empiricism. Due to his
visionary religious beliefs, he opposed the Newtonian view of the universe.
Blake's Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the "single-vision"
of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass
to write upon a scroll that seems to project from his own head.
Since Blake's etching
"Ancient of Days" (1794) shows God creating the world with a compass,|
many have suggested that Blake was a Freemason. The Masonic logo shows
a compass & square with letter "G" in the middle. The article below by Stuart Peterfreund (1984) suggests that while Blake knew many Freemasons, he was not a member himself, as the London Lodge would have a record if he joined.
"Blake, Freemasonry and the Builder's Task"|
(By Stuart Peterfreund, Mosaic, Vol. 17, 35-57, 1984)
But Blake's animosity to some practitioners of Freemasonry does not necessarily imply his rejection of it. Nor would his occasional repudiation of Masonic precept and practice imply a total rejection of Masonic thought. Blake wars against Bacon, Newton and Locke throughout the Prophetic Books with the goal of redeeming them, not rejecting them. The gang of three appears in he redemptive tableau at the end of "Jerusalem", along with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton (98.9), an appearance indicating that Blake found something of value even in the arch-prophets of rationalism and materialistic philosophy two of them presumptive Masons in the bargain and even that even his enemies had something to teach the visionary engaged in unceasing mental warfare.
Blake's references to Freemasonry span a good deal of his mature career from the time of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" to that of "Jerusalem", in fact (from 1790-93 to 1804-20). The references indicate a wide-ranging familiarity with Masonic matters. Such familiarity does not mean, however, that Blake was necessarily either an initiated Mason or an anti-Masonic "spy". There was a large and highly popular body of Masonic literature in print during Blake's time. Among the titles Blake might have perused are Samuel Pritchard's "Masonry Issected" (1730), the anonymous companion-works "Jachin and Boaz" and "Hiram" (1762, 1764), William Hutchinson's "The Spirit of Masonry" (1775), and William Preston's "Pocket Manual" (1790; 1792)... Blake might have gotten his information from Thomas Paine's essay on "The Origin of Freemasonry"
the pretty pictorial frontispiece to "Europe" (1794). As anyone who has ever seen a Masonic ring or automobile medallion knows, the dividers is one of the principlcal symbolic tools of Freemasonry. As now, so in the 18th century: the dividers symbolized the Craft. Blake places dividers in the hands of his arch-prophets off reason, as in his color print of "Newton", a figure clearly popular with Freemasonry, though not a member himself. The engraving depicts Newton working over a diagram of a circle inscribed in a square, a gibing reference to Newton's work on the calculus and quadrature of curves, with which Blake was apparently familiar (Tate Gallery). In the frontispiece to "Europe", Urizen, who is
a Newtonian avatar, wields the dividers, posed in the squatting configuration characteristic of Blake's self-imprisoned exemplars of rationality, with eyes closed or averted in the characteristic pose of the reasoner whose arguments proceed from self-deluding, self-concealed self-interest. The dividers in Masonic lore is the tool of the "Almighty Architect" of heaven and earth, who divided night from day, heaven from earth, earth from sea, and so on. To show that God is the "Almighty Architect" intended, Masonic iconography often places a flaming, five-pointed star over the dividers to signify His possession of the tool (fig. 4). Often as not the star is inscribed with the letter G (fig. 5).
A close inspection of Blake's engraving reveals that the flame-like modeling of Urizen's hair and hatchings that radiate from the celestial orb behind him add up to the impression of a flaming star. An adding up of the number of projecting point the emanate from the figure, including (clockwise) the knee, the feet, the extended arm, the other knee, and the hair, makes it obvious that the impression, if it is of a flaming star, is of a five-pointed one (fig. 6).
What distinguishes Blake's frontispiece from normal Masonic renderings is the decision to portray the flaming
five-pointed star as a human being.
Blake's attempt is to show that Urizen or the Masonic initiate considers "an act of God" is in fact a human action whose origins have been effaced in an effort to heighten the inscriptive and prescriptive force of the act. Giving a definite outline and physiognomy to the flaming star he borrows from Freemasonry is but a small step in Blake's visionary enterprise one more identification and humanization leading up to, and culminating in, th refrain
on which the drama of "Jerusalem" concludes: "All Human Forms identified" (99.1). Blake's "corrections" suggest that, for him, the cardinal sin of Freemasonry is its failure, in the midst of much activity that Blake accounted instructive and worthwhile, to identify as human the orinay creative act. As Blake saw it, Freemasonry thereby mystified excessively or denied outright a possibility central to the poet's credo: that any of us might have been,
and may yet be, that "Almighty Architect", that flaming star.
The tyrants of reason, a category in which Blake places the Greeks and Romans and their Enlightenment posterity (including the Masons), fail to realize that the collective example of artist and code alike prescribes the creative act itself, not the embodiment of form the act takes. Blake sees Freemasonry as but one more group victimized by the delusion of material priority the delusion that the world out there, whether it be comprised of Newtonian "corpuscles", Harleyan "vibratiuncles" or the bodies that house them or Solomonic temples somehow exists prior to the perception of the individual whose outer limit of energy that world becomes. With specific reference to Bezaleel and Aholiab, the veneration of Freemasonry is not for their creative spirit, but for the body, or matter of their creation. When Blake complains about being compelled "to worship them as Gods", the meaning he most nearly intends by "Gods" is idols, or graven images, the cold effigies of poetic genius rather than the warm process itself.
With the four cities of Jerusalem's humanity completed, it remains only for the four aspects of the poet's humanity Milton, Los, Blake and Albion to become "re-embodied" in such a way that they have the wisdom necessary to make of the four cities a single, visionary one. That "re-embodiiment" occurs near the end of the poem, when the renovated Albion rises up and turns "his face.. toward/The east, toward Jerusalem Gates" (39.33-34). Albion
could not have come to this pass without having acquired that craft without having "died" and been "reborn"
(or "re-embodied") into successively higher states of vision and knowledge. Most importantly, Albion
could not have become the fourfold individual he is without the fellowship of others.
Craft, rebirth into higher wisdom, fellowship all three of these are characteristic of the Masonic enterprise and equally of Blake's visionary one. Blake took Freemasonry as one of the social institutions that were his cultural endowment and transformed it through a visionary poetic critique. The success of this critique resulted in Blake's conception of the builder's task, which provides the means for Blake's transcendence of the constrains of the self
and Freemasonry alike, the former being the visionary project of a lifetime.
Peter Y. Chou
Mountain View, 8-1-2020