Los’s Light and the Swedenborg Window

February 21, 2023

A Creative Connections post by artist Andrea McLean.

The Frontispiece of William Blake’s illuminated book Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion shows a luminous symbol. The concentric disk of light can be seen simply as a lamp light. At first, this is the way the overall plate is likely to be understood. A figure, Los, the archetypal artist, steps over the threshold of a gothic arched door. Circles of light show the place where, if there was a lamp, a lamp would be. Los, however, does not hold a lamp. His fingers hold nothing of any weight, they are separated and integrated into the light.

The lightest hold, the easiest way to hold something in one hand when walking, named the ‘satchel-hold’, employs fingers loosely folded under the handle which is held in place by gravity. Los’s fingers do not fold around the lamp’s handle, they look to be walking, as if stepping round the circle’s centre. The roundel is surrounded by radiating beams of light. 

The light disk Los is accompanied with, shares its nature with a concentric cosmos diagram. This can be thought of as showing a circular symbol of the whole of time. Los, wearing Blake’s coat and hat, begins his creative pilgrimage through the one hundred plates of Jerusalem. The linear, labyrinthine, nature of the prophetic book’s narrative soon takes on a mapping quality, woven with vision. The circular light’s rim is a strongly defined line. It is clear where the boundary lies, as solid as the step needed to go through the door. Perhaps ‘bring your own world with you’ might be a key to the way to take in the book Jerusalem Emanation of the Giant Albion.

The doorway is likely to be based on one at Westminster Abbey where Blake descended into the crypt to draw the tombs. Light would have been needed there. Perhaps the light here was chosen from Blake’s environment, Blake’s streets in London.

Approaching Swedenborg House, crossing over from Bloomsbury Square in London, I began to change my mind about Los’s disk. I had interpreted it as a kind of mystical shield, a peaceful and weightless protection for Los as he steps into the low light. The idea of peaceful armour for the mental fight is so important for Blakean thought.

My new interpretation, however, is something very different to a mythological symbol. It is the special quality of a pane of glass. The historic shopfront window of Swedenborg House has many panes of glass. There is a top row of lattice gothic archway shapes. Beneath there are thirty-two panes: four panes tall and eight wide. All the panes are clear glass, except for one — two panes along and three panes up. This is a ‘crown’ glass pane, made when windows were hand-blown. By a process of blowing through a long pipe a glass balloon was formed. This was then flattened, and the sheets of glass were cut out. One piece was not smooth and clear, bubbling up to where the blowing pipe was separated from the glass form it had created. 

Could this be what Los has at his side, the cosmos vision of the artist represented by a singular windowpane of Blake’s London? There would have been many more of these fish-eye window panes in Blake’s day. They were the least expensive, now very valuable, if not irreplaceable. James Wilson of Swedenborg House explained that there were originally two and shows the place where there second crown glass was before it was broken. No replacement could be found. Having just one though, is special. Looking at the glass from the outside of Swedenborg House, pedestrians and traffic create sparks and swirls of living London reflected.

Inside the bookshop a cafè is empathetically being built among the glass fronted book shelves, readers’ armchairs and a little marble bust of Swedenborg looking cheerfully on. Turning into the gallery spaces beyond, there is  currently  an exhibition (continuing throughout February) on the theme of Place. In a cabinet in the centre of the room, along with Swedenborg’s copper-tipped walking stick, are three of Blake’s Job engravings, his inky thumb prints visible at the edges.

As the Swedenborg House’s director and curator explained in an introductory talk to the exhibition, Place, for Swedenborg, is different to Space. Place is more individual and created and can also apply to the future. Perhaps we bring our own place with us. A little copper engraving, a printing block made for one of Swedenborg’s books about the nature of the cosmos is also in the exhibition, at the centre is a ‘solar zone’.

Blake’s disk is most clearly a sun-disk, but it is possible that the transparent transformation these special windows gave reflected the vision he wanted to share.

The current Swedenborg House Exhibition ‘Concerning an idea about place: items from the Swedenborg Collection’, continues until 28 February 2023. Booking is essential. 

With special thanks to Lolita Sobolyova, a Swedenborg House concierge and volunteer; over three enthralling days we made sense of cosmos texts and diagrams together. Thank you to James Wilson, and Stephen McNeilly, who were inspiring, illuminating and kind.

Andrea McLean’s painted Map of Golgonooza is available from our Gifts page.