Illustrious Ideas and Illustrations: The Imagery of Gustav Doré – The Epoch Times

John Milton began his tragic poem “Paradise Lost” by telling us of a great war in heaven. Wanting to rule heaven, Satan gathered a group of rebel angels to oppose God. Thus, Satan’s pride initiated a divine war. Of course, Satan and the angels who sided with him lost the war and were cast from heaven.
Milton describes the event as follows: 
“[W]hat time his pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of
God raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire…” (Book 1, lines 36-48).
In his first illustration for “Paradise Lost,” Gustav Doré provided his vision for Milton’s passage. The composition is divided into two sections. The top section depicts the angels who fight for God. They are shown with less contrast, and a brilliant light illuminates them from behind. 
Some of the angels even appear as if they are ephemeral: it is almost as if their bodies are made of the light that shines behind them. The central angel, however, flies forth with great energy and points his sword toward the falling rebel angels. 
The light separates the clouds and bursts into the darkness of the composition’s bottom section. Some of the light rays even appear as lightning bolts, as if the light rays are striking the falling, rebel angels. 
The rebel angels fall from heaven with their hands flailing and their backs arching as they writhe in pain. Some of them try to shield themselves from the light, but they start becoming silhouettes of black as they fall toward the bottom of the composition.
We can presume that the largest, falling rebel angel directly in the middle of the composition is Satan himself. He holds a spear in one hand and puts his other hand up to his head in angst. The fact that Satan is the largest figure, has the most contrast, and is in the center of the composition lets us know that he is the focal point. Satan is not only the focal point of Doré’s composition, but he is also the focal point of Milton’s tragedy. 
Milton said he wrote “Paradise Lost” to “justify the ways of God to men” (Book 1, line 26). In order to accomplish his goal, he took the unusual approach of making Satan his main character, and Doré follows suit in his illustrations. Why would they make Satan the focus if the goal is to justify the ways of God to men, unless Milton’s tragedy is a cautionary tale. 
If that is the case, then what are we cautioned against?
We can interpret from Milton’s story that pride is the foundational affront against God. There is a clear contrast between Satan’s pride and God’s almighty righteousness, and the angels must choose which they will follow. God and his angels cast from heaven all of those who leave righteousness behind to follow pride. Does this suggest that pride, by its nature, exists separate from righteousness?
This great war is not only a war that happened in heaven, but it is also a war that happens inside of us every day. This everyday battle—the battle between light and dark, righteousness and pride—is ingrained in the human experience.
Every day, we have to choose between what God wants from us and what we might do for the sake of our pride. Like those righteous angels in heaven having the light of God, we have to, within ourselves, cast into darkness those things that resist the divine. 
Gustav Doré was a prolific illustrator in the 19th century. He created images for some of the greatest classical literature of the Western world, including “The Bible,” “Paradise Lost,” and “The Divine Comedy.” In this series, we will take a deep dive into the thoughts that inspired Doré and the imagery those thoughts provoked.


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