Ancient of Days

Ancient of Days

This dramatic image by William Blake both is, and is not, a helpful image of God.

What I find helpful is the presentation of light revealed from darkness. For me this is a central idea for human spirituality. “Light” is our knowledge, our knowledge of God, the good qualities of being human.

What I also find helpful is the strength and energy of the “God figure” in the painting. He seems elemental, embodying the energies of the universe (notice how he sits within the disk of the sun).

And he reaches out, reaches down. Perhaps the dark clouds represent heaven, or the “darkness” of what we do not know about God and spirituality? But the God figure reaches out beyond those boundaries. And if what he is holding is a lightning bolt, then he reaches down with energy.

‘Ancient of Days’, William Blake

But there are also elements of this most striking of images that I do not find helpful in the presentation of God.

God is not “an old man” – God is beyond both gender and time, and beyond humanity.

God is not part of the universe, or else God could not be God. God must be beyond, transcending the physical universe, the ultimate of being and existence, by definition. So God cannot be satisfactorily depicted without limiting God.

As a work of art, I think this is marvellous. But Blake himself may have intended this to have negative as well as positive connotations. If what the God figure is holding is a pair of compasses, then this is a God who measures, and perhaps judges, too. Measurement and judgment can both be good but they can also be reductive.

So we are left with the question of what to make of this wonderful image. To what extent is this a helpful image of God?

And that is a very personal decision.

One thought on “Ancient of Days

  1. I like your comments on this painting. You’ve identified both the positive and negative aspects. My answer to your question is that I don’t find it helpful, and like you say, that is a personal decision. The whole geometry and compass imagery goes back to deistic concepts and is far from Genesis, where God creates by the Word. But you really raise all the important questions that need to be asked about an image like this. Thank you.


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