Gustave Doré Illuminates a Majestic Revelation

Reaching within: What traditional art offers the heart
September 19, 2019 Updated: September 23, 2019

Gustave Doré was a French Romantic artist known for illustrating some of the greatest books of known Western literature. These included Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and the Bible, among others. He provided these most influential narratives with fascinating imagery.

In the mid-19th century, he illustrated a verse from the Bible. That verse, Matthew 27:19, reads: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.'”

Doré interpreted this general statement and translated it into a majestic scene. 

Pilate’s wife, Claudia, is seen on the left side of the image. Her bedchamber can be seen behind her in the background. She is obviously perturbed by the content of her dream, has left her bedchamber, and walks into the night.

An angel sits close to Claudia and appears to whisper to her while pointing to the imagery on the right side. It is as if the angel’s gesture provides the content of the dream, as if the angel represents the breakthrough between our worldly plane and a spiritual plane.

On the right side of the image is a secondary focal point: Jesus Christ, shrouded in light. His halo illuminates the darkness around him.

A detail from the "Dream of Pilate's Wife
A detail from the “Dream of Pilate’s Wife.” 19th century, by Gustav Doré. Engraving. (PD-US)

Roman soldiers kneel at Jesus’s feet, and four figures stand behind him. These four figures may very well represent the four authors of the gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The figure holding keys behind these four figures must be Peter, to whom Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom,” inaugurating him as head of the Church. 

Peter does not watch the event in front of him but turns to look for guidance from Mary, as though she already has received her coronation in heaven with the crown on her head and cross in her hands.

To the left of Jesus, figures hold the cross upon which he will be crucified. Roman soldiers are shown in disbelief, in reverence, and in worship. In the background, figures are shown ascending to heaven, where a cross shines like a star in the sky. It is quite the majestic scene.  

In the Bible, Claudia, however, described none of these details. Doré used his imagination to interpret and depict the scene. What can we gather from his depiction about our possible relationship to our dreams and to the divine?

The Dream as a Revelation

Here, the dream is like a portal to another world. It is not merely pulsating imagery from repressed desire, as Freud would suggest.

Through the dream, the angel reveals divine content to Claudia; the angel ushers her into this other, celestial world. Her dream is so lucid that it is, instead, an actual happening. The dream allows the sleeper transmigration to another world, only to return to this one upon awakening. It is a revelation, not merely a dream.

Through her revelation, Claudia comes to have faith in Jesus’s divinity. 

Doré interpreted Claudia’s dream as a divine experience. For him, Claudia understood that condemning Jesus was not just harming an innocent man but a divine being. She would, no doubt, wonder what the outcome would be of such an evil act.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we will explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).