And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split (Matthew 27: 50-51).
As we discussed in class last Friday, I think these lines from Matthew are central to the allegorical “Argument” that prefaces “Visions of the Daughter of Albion,” particularly the last two lines “But the terrible thunders tore / My virgin mantle in twain.” In order understand the significance of this biblical allusion for Blake’s sexual politics, we need to discover how and why this moment of vaginal penetration as rape (why rape?) is ironically related to the holy place of the tabernacle: an inner room called the holy of holies, or the most holy place.
As decribed in the Old Testament, this inner room of the temple was a most sacred room, because it was God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people during the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube separated by a thick curtain, known as the “veil” (in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator that hides). What was this curtain hiding? It was shielding a holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the holy of holies was entering the very presence of God and anyone other than the high priest who entered the holy of holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. “But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Hebrews 9:7). So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross made direct access to God available to all people–not just the priests. When Jesus died the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, performing the sacrificial atonement that could finally unveil the holy of holies.
But what exact does the holy of holies look like? To answer this question, we need to know about the figure of cherubim (plural term for hybrid lion/human angels) that were embroidered onto this curtain. They were spirits who serve God, and God was thought to be present in between these two spirits. The cherubim serves as a reminder of what use to be housed in this inner room: the Ark of the Covenant. This transportable ark was said to contain the testimony of the people of Israel, or the Law of the original Ten Commandandments written on stone tablets. A special lid or “mercy seat” covered the top of the ark and was ornamented with two cherubs whose outspread wings overarched the cover and touched one another (see image below).
According to Kabbalists, Moravians, and Swedenborgians, the golden sculpture of male and female cherubs that guarded the Ark were entwined in the act of marital intercourse, thus forming an emblem of God’s joyful marriage with his female counterpart, Jerusalem. When the Temple was sacked by pagans, the erotic statuary was paraded through the streets in order to embarress the Israelites. In other words, God manifests through sexual union and guides those who work with this holy mystery.
This indicates a profound relationship with Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, as displayed in the santuaries of their temples:
So to return to Blake’s image of virginal penetration as rape. Oothoon, in picking the ideal feminine flower of beauty from Leutha’s vale, or sex regulated under the law, has freely choosen the joys of sexuality but also, ironically, the very patriarchal law that probits womem’s full enjoyment of sexuality: Bromion’s “terrible thunders” of reason, acting on behalf of Urizen (“your reason”). In other words, the holy of holies–sexual union of the cherubim–is violated by reason’s violent penetration (rape). Hence, the holy of holies cannot be made universal until humanity is free from sex under the law, especially for women, as revealed in Christ’s bodily crucifixtion (for Moravians, Christ’s death wound/womb). This allegorical argument, I believe, aligns Blake’s sexual (Moravian) theology with his feminist politics, which is clearly very different from Mary Wollstonecraft’s more secular feminism.
I’m offerring a provisional reading here…any other thoughts?