The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne by William Blake
c. 1803-5
watercolour on paper, 35.4 cm x 29.3 cm
acquired by the Tate Gallery 1949

If I knew more about Blake's writings or the Bible I could probably tell you what these figures represent. But I'll tell you what they look like. In the centre is God. No mistaking God. If you passed him on the street you'd recognize him, long white hair, radiant, long robe, sitting on a throne with one hand upraised in benediction, and surrounded by angels, rainbows, and light. Actually it's Revelation 4, thanks wertperch.

At his feet, brilliant white spectres are leaning humbly towards him, laying down crowns. They too have long white hair and beards. Between the two rows of them, going back into the distance, the space between their feet is occupied by seraphic heads: child-like heads, crowned with flame, backed perhaps with fleecy wings, and emerging from a kind of sea. Just their heads.

Behind the elders' backs strange darker ghosts or emanations appear: a congeries of swirling bodies of wind, with heads and eyes - a noble human head, an eagle, a lion. They rise up to form an arch above God, touching like fingers at the apex. They are not radiant; they're stormy, or like the colour of grey rain when it becomes a visible sheet. They don't look like angelic presences in adoration, more like stern nature spirits taking up their position. I think they would go well in C.S. Lewis's interplanetary trilogy: potent eldila of kinds we would not expect from the sanitized rococo putti we call angels.

They form the arch around him. Behind him we see more eldila, thinner and more insubstantial, a wash, a chorus of faces, eyes, wings: like music made discernible. Through them we see the azure of the empyrean. There is not much colour in this picture; but in the distance the heavens are blue, with the beginnings of an arch of pink beyond them. A rainbow crowns the scene, high above God but within the handfasting of the spirits.

God's robe has a pink tinge, soft yet striking in contrast to the blue of the sky beyond him, and echoed in the rainbow and in the furthest vault far above him. In his right hand he holds - what? A large white staff or rod with seven golden buttons. Not like a staff of office, not a sceptre, too pudgy for that, more like a musical instrument.

And what's this sleeping at his feet, between the cherubic heads and his throne, apparently bathed in a soft fire. It looks like a dog, asleep. Are the elders giving their crowns to the dog?

Perhaps I was wrong about it being God.

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