William Blake, The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides



















Tate Britain, London

Date: c. 1824-27
Technique: Pencil, ink and watercolour on paper, 372 x 527 mm

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides is a pencil, ink and watercolour on paper artwork by the English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827). The work was completed between 1824 and 1827 and illustrates a passage from the Inferno canticle of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The work is part of a series which was to be the last set of watercolours he worked on before his death in August 1827. It is held in the Tate Gallery, London.

Blake was commissioned in 1824 by his friend, the painter John Linnell (1792–1882), to create a series of illustrations based on Dante's poem. Blake was then in his late sixties, yet by legend drafted 100 watercolours on the subject "during a fortnight's illness in bed". Few of them were actually coloured, and only seven gilded. He sets this work in a scene from one of the circles of hell depicted in the Inferno (Circle VII, Ring II, Canto XIII), in which Dante and the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE) travel through a forest haunted by harpies—mythological winged and malign fat-bellied death-spirits who bear features of human heads and female breasts.

he harpies in Dante's version feed from the leaves of oak trees which entomb suicides. At the time Canto XIII (or The Wood of Suicides) was written, suicide was considered by the church as at least equivalent to murder, and a contravention of the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill". Many theologians believed it to be a deeper sin than murder, as it constituted a rejection of God's gift of life. Dante describes a tortured wood infested with harpies, where the act of suicide is punished by encasing the offender in a tree, thus denying eternal life and damning the soul to an eternity as a member of the restless living dead, and prey to the harpies. Blake's painting shows Dante and Virgil walking through a haunted forest at a moment when Dante tears a leaf from a bleeding tree. He drops it in shock on hearing the disembodied words, "Wherefore tear'st me thus? Is there no touch of mercy in thy breast?".

In Dante's poem, the tree contains the body of Pietro della Vigna (1190–1249), an Italian jurist and diplomat, and chancellor and secretary to the Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250). Pietro was a learned man who rose to become a close advisor to the emperor. However, his success was envied by other members of Frederick II's court, and charges that he was wealthier than the emperor and was an agent of the pope were brought against him. Frederick threw Pietro in prison, and had his eyes ripped out. In response, Pietro killed himself by beating his head against the dungeon wall. He is one of four named suicides mentioned in Canto XIII, and represents the notion of a "heroic" suicide.

Describing the scene, Dante wrote:

    Here the repellent harpies make their nests,
    Who drove the Trojans from the Strophades
    With dire announcements of the coming woe.
    They have broad wings, a human neck and face,
    Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw
    Their lamentations in the eerie trees.

lthough Pietro does not reveal his identity to the travellers in Dante's episode, he does moralise on the act of suicide, asking (as paraphrased by the historian Wallace Fowlie) if it is better to submit to chastisement and misfortune or take one's own life.[6] In Canto XIII, Pietro says, "I am he that held both keys of Frederick's heart / To lock and to unlock / and well I knew / To turn them with so exquisite an art.

Blake shows a number of contorted human figures embedded in the oak trees in the foreground. To the right, a male figure is seated and wears a crown. A female form is hung upside-down and transformed into a tree on Dante and Virgil's left. This figure may have been inspired by Dante's reference to La Meretrice, or Envy, to whom Pietro attributed his fall.
Examining Blake's use of camouflage in the work, the art historian Kathleen Lundeen observes, "The trees appear to be superimposed over the figures as if the two images in the previous illustration has been pulled together into a single focus. Through the art of camouflage, Blake gives us an image in flux, one which is in a perpetual state of transmutation. Now we see trees, now we see people."

Three large harpies perch on branches spanning the pair of travellers, and these creatures are depicted by Blake as monstrous bird–human hybrids, in the words of the art historian Kevin Hutchings, "functioning as iconographic indictments of the act of suicide and its violent negation of the divine human form".

The harpies' faces are human-like except for their pointed beaks, while their bodies are owl-shaped and equipped with claws, sharp wings and female breasts. Blake renders them in a manner faithful to Dante's description in 13:14–16: "Broad are their pennons, of the human form / Their neck and countenance, armed with talons keen / These sit and wail on the dreary mystic wood."

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Mikhail Vrubel, Demon Overthrown











The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Date: 1902
Technique: Oil on Canvas, 139 x 387 cm

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Đorđe Krstić, Babakaj

















Narodni muzej u Beogradu

Date: 1892-1906
Technique: Oil on canvas, 52.5 x 80.5 cm

Golubac Fortress was a medieval fortified town on the south side of the Danube River, 4 km downstream from the modern-day town of Golubac, Serbia. The fortress, which was most likely built during the 14th century, is split into three compounds which were built in stages. It has ten towers, most of which started square, and several of which received many-sided reinforcements with the advent of firearms.

Golubac Fortress has had a tumultuous history. Prior to its construction it was the site of a Roman settlement. During the Middle Ages, it became the object of many battles, especially between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. It changed hands repeatedly, passing between Turks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbs, and Austrians, until 1867, when it was turned over to the Serbian Knez, Mihailo Obrenović III.

Golubac marks the entrance to the Đerdap national park. It is strategically located on the embankment of the Danube River where it narrows to form the Iron Gate gorge, allowing for the regulation and taxation of traffic across and along the river. In the Middle Ages, this was done with the aid of a strong chain connected to Babakaj, a rock on the far side of the river.

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