Under the Hill: Venus and Tannhauser in the Victorian Underworld



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Aubrey Beardsley Tannhäuser, 1891. Pen and black ink with grey wash heightened with white, Rosenwald Collection

Stories of journeys into the underworld seem to be  as old as the telling of tales itself. The idea of a lone figure who dares to endure the horrors of the underworld in order to attain some goal, or of a mortal taken into an underground realm by the ‘wee folk’, seems to transcend cultural difference to be repeated time and time again in folktales, fairy tales and sagas. There is even an apocryphal Christian tradition ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ which tells that, between the crucifixion and resurrection, Christ descends into Hell in order to save the souls of the righteous who have died since the beginning of the world.

The second half of the 19th century was not immune from stories of descents into the underworld, a phenomenon s fuelled by a revival of interest in Northern European folklore and mythologies  One particularly fascinating manifestation of this was the outpouring of versions of the medieval German story of  the Knight Tannhäuser and his love for the goddess Venus.

The basic story of Venus and Tannhäuser is this:

The Knight  Tannhäuser is an unhappy man, and is no longer young for a medieval human (he is in his 30s!). One day, whilst wandering in a disconsolate manner, he stumbles upon the Venusberg (or Hörselberg), the subterranean home of the Goddess Venus (or the Teutonic  Dame Holda in some versions) and her attendants. The once all-powerful goddess of love has been banished to this underground realm by the, seemingly, unstoppable march of Christianity.  In thrall to her erotic charms, Tannhäuser loses track of time and stays in the enchanted mountain for years, enjoying countless acts of debauchery and lust. In turn, the goddess falls in love with him.

Nevertheless, after seven years he is troubled by his conscience. He believes that he has sinned during his time under the Hill of Venus, and that he must dedicate his life to the Virgin Mary. He leaves the Venusberg and, as his sins are so immense, is unable to be pardoned by any mere priest and so joins a band of pilgrims to journey to Rome where he seeks absolution from the Holy Father himself. When the Pope hears the extent of Tannhäuser’s transgressions he tells the Knight that there is no hope of redemption unless the papal staff miraculously blooms. In despair Tannhäuser makes his way back to Venus and her subterranean court. Three days after Tannhäuser leaves the city of Rome, the Papal staff bursts into flower, but it is too late, for the Knight Tannhäuser has entered the Venusberg and is never seen again.

The Tannhäuser myth dates, at least in written form,  from the 13th century where it first appears in the Busslied, supposedly written by the Knight Tannhäuser himself who was a Minnesinger and who died in 1265.  The story, then evolves throughout the next eight centuries to suit the various purposes of the writers, artists and composers who take it and fashion it into something new each time. However, it seems certain that the origins of the tale are much older. European folklore is littered with stories of mortal men (it is, usually, men) ‘lured’ into a faery realm, only to emerge some time later having lost track of ‘mortal’ time.


Henri Fantin-Latour, Tannhauser on the Venusberg , 1864, LACMA .

Although a number of Romantic authors created versions of the myth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was the March 1861 Parisian premiere of Ricard Wagner’s new version of his 1845 ‘Music-Drama’, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at Wartburg) that caught the imagination of European artists and writers, particularly those working in England. Wagner’s version of the tale (which was far more focused on redemption than sin) was seen to be highly immoral. It also didn’t take a genius to decipher that the Venusberg or Hill of Venus can be seen to be a not-too-subtle metaphor for the Mons Veneris, or pubic mound.  If all that wasn’t enough, the aristocratic members of the Paris Jockey club  started a riot at the premiere because Wagner had structured the opera in such a way that their custom of arriving for the ballet section and then leaving with their dancer mistresses was disrupted.

This controversy was further fuelled by the poet Charles Baudelaire’s spirited defence of the work in his essay ‘Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris’ (1861) which praised the perverse magnificence of the work in the face of its negative reception in Paris. Baudelaire’s reputation as the ‘godfather’ of decadence and debauchery (a reputation justly earned with his fabulous 1857 collection of poetry Les Fleurs Du Mal)  only served to add to the general air of wickedness and depravity surrounding both the opera and the story of Venus and Tannhäuser. Indeed, the 1864 Fantin-Latour Tannhauser on the Venusberg (above) was, rather naughtily, based on the ballet that caused the kerfuffle with the Jockey Club! Unsurprising when you realise that the artist was a good friend of the equally irreverant artist Whistler.

1861 is a pivotal year for artistic interest in the Tannhäuser myth. Not only did the Paris premiere of Wagner’s opera and Baudelaire’s defence reach almost legendary status themselves, but in Britain artist Edward Burne-Jones and his, then, good friend the poet Algernon Swinburne were inspired to commence their own, equally brilliant, versions of the strange tale, both entitled Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus).

Swinburne’s Laus Veneris is a a fabulously rich evocation of the Knight’s adoration of the goddess; a masochistic paean to her powerful divine sensuality. The full poem is here:



Laus Veneris, c.1873-75 (oil on canvas)

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, c.1873-75 (oil on canvas) ; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


Burns-Jones however, does something very different. In his own glorious Laus Veneris  of the 1870s (the original watercolour of 1861 is sadly in an inaccessible private collection) the interior of the Venusberg is not the hotbed of desire depicted in Swinburne’s,  or the ‘Hell Mouth’ often described in Christianised versions of the myth which depict Venus’s realm as a site of Pagan evil. Instead Burne-Jones domesticates the interior of the Venusberg, turning it into a luxurious Aesthetic interior full of jewel-like colours, with De Morgan tiles around the window, E.W.Godwin furniture, fantastical musical instruments, a peacock fan, and  Venus and her attendants in gorgeous Aesthetic dress.

The embroidered hangings on the wall are depictions of two genuine tapestries by Burne-Jones for Morris & Co.: Venus and Cupid, and The Passage of Venus; both scenes from her past life when she ruled the classical world. This interior realm is not a realm of ‘evil’, instead it serves as the last, mournful,  vestige of the world of happy love which the goddess ruled before she was usurped by the Virgin Mary. The Venusburg becomes a realm dominated by the force of Love, not one ruled by the ‘thou shalt not’ of mainstream Christian Victorian Society.

This fascination with the story of Venus and Tannhäuser was not confined to Swinburne and Burne-Jones. William Morris also features an anglicised version (Tannhäuser becomes Walter)  in his epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70),  and there is also Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished, witty and highly pornographic version The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser; a far less saucy version of this was published as Under the Hill in ‘The Savoy’  in 1896. (Incidentally I believe, that Beardsley’s unexpurgated version-which was eventually published after his death in 1907-  is probably the first piece of literature to offer the world the concept ofUniporn’, and by ‘Uniporn’ I do, indeed, mean pornography involving a Unicorn…!)


‘Venus between Terminal Gods’, Frontispiece for the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, Aubrey Beardsley 1885



Beardsley’s version is a topsy-turvy one. All of the other tellings of the tale merely imply the sexual acts that may or may have not occurred under the Hill of Venus; the details and extent of the debauchery are left to the imagination of the reader or viewer.

This is crucial in the second half of the nineteenth century when all manner of sexual practices were either taboo or prohibited by law. The Venusberg can, and does, become an imaginative space, indeed a ‘queer space’, where all non-normative sexual, spiritual, or social practices are acceptable. Thus in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, when our eponymous anti-hero has grown tired of other forms of music he,

‘would sit in his box at the Opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to ‘Tannhäuser’, and seeing in the prelude to that work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.’ (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: 1891, p. 201.)

Wilde’s reference to  Wagner’s opera is precisely because of the fluidity of meaning inherent in the myth, and the potent implication that all manner of  acts that were seen as  illegal or immoral by conventional society might be allowed in a permissive space such as the Venusberg. For Wilde the  ‘tragedy of his own soul’ was that like Tannhäuser, society would condemn his needs and desires and, ultimately, destroy him because of them.

It is also interesting that at least two leading  occultists, the novelist (and probable alchemist)  Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) and the ever-notorious self-proclaimed Beast and High priest of Thelma, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), also wrote versions of the tale. Buller-Lytton and Julian Fane wrote Edward Bulwer Lytton (under the pseudonyms Neville Temple and Arthur Trevor) published  ‘Tannhäuser: or the Battle of the Bards’ in that crucial year  1861 and Crowley wrote his play Tannhauser: A Story for all Time in 1907. The idea of the Venusberg as a transformative or magical space (such as the alembic in alchemy) is a most intriguing idea. Certainly the Knight and any other mortal who stumbles upon it will not emerge without undergoing some form of spiritual and/ or moral metamorphosis.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a time of great spiritual uncertainty, and a time when legal and social prescriptions destroyed lives of those that  would not or could not conform to them, the Venusberg becomes  so much more than a myth of a Knight frolicking with a goddess. It is becomes an imaginary space place of transformation and self-discovery;  and in the restrictive world of late Victorian Britain, it a site of cultural resistance and, ultimately, a potent vision of a kinder, more permissive society.


‘For the Ghost Gods’: Invoking the Dead in Rossetti’s Dis Manibus (The Roman Widow), 1874 #PRBDay



Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dis Manibus (The Roma Widow), Oil on Canvas 1874, Museo de Arte, de Ponce, Puerto Rico


Dis Manibus (The Roman Widow), is not one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s better known works. Through the vicissitudes of history, the lovely painting of the young, bereaved woman, originally commissioned by the artist’s patron the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, has ended up almost the other side of the world from its London origins, as part of the wonderful collections of the Museo de Arte de Ponce,  Puerto Rico, where it is in the same collection is Frederic Leighton’s stunning Flaming June (1895). It has often struck me that Rossetti’s depiction of a delicate, almost ghostly, pale widow has, for too long, been hiding in the  shadows of Leighton’s solar blaze.


Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, Oil on Canvas 1895, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The painting depicts a widow of ancient Rome sitting beside the  cinerary urn that contains her husband’s remains. The urn is inscribed: DÎS MANIBUS/ L. AELIO AQUINO/ MARITO CARISSIMO/ PAPIRIA GEMINA / FECIT/ AVE DOMINE. VALE DOMINE (To the deities of the underworld: Papira Gemina has made this for her dearest husband Lucius Aelius Aquinas: hail master, and farewell master). The inscription on the urn is taken from a Roman urn in Rossetti’s collection (Rossetti was an avid collector of all manner of antique objects) . The model for this painting is Alexa Wilding.

The widow is playing an elegy to ‘Dîs Manibus‘, the ‘Divine Manes‘. The Manes were believed to be ‘ghost-gods’- chthonic (underworld) deities  that represented the souls of deceased loved ones. She plays on two harps, one with each hand (Rossetti took the imagery of the harps straight from wall paintings at Pompeii), a convention in classical funerary imagery. The circular silver-white girdle that hangs  on the urn symbolises her enduring love for her dead husband. The pink old-fashioned and wild roses are the flowers of Venus, the goddess of erotic love.

Although portraying ancient rites, the comparison between these specific rites and the growing belief in Spiritualism of the second half of the nineteenth century cannot be overlooked. As has been much discussed elsewhere, Rossetti became involved in Spiritualism and attended, and held, séances, an interest which may have been, at least in part, a response to the untimely death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal in 1862. However, this theme is a constant throughout Rossetti’s career, initially inspired by his fascination Dante Alighieri’s immortalisation in literary form of his enduring love for Beatrice.

Works such as the poem and painting The Blessed Damozel (the poem was first published in 1850 and revised in 1856 & 1873,  the painting  was created 1875-8) and particularly the Willowwood Sonnet sequence (1868)  are attempts to represent the endurance of love beyond death, and the plaintive longing of the living for the dead. And, as with Willowwood  where the narrator encounters love in the form of music as he tries to reach out into the otherworld of lost love,  here in Dîs Manibus we are  also privy to the heady combination of love and music as the grieving widow uses both to communicate with her lost love in the underworld. I don’t believe that it is remotely fanciful to conclude that Rossetti saw his art and poetry throughout his career as an attempt not only to represent, but as a form of communion with, love in all of its forms, be they lost, real, or unobtainable.


The Blessed Damozel, Oil on Canvas, 1871-8, Fogg Museum,    Harvard University

The more I have thought about Dîs Manibus, the more it has fascinated me. Rossetti devoted much of the 1870s  to painting his enigmatic three-quarter length portraits of women influenced, in part, by Venetian Renaissance portraiture. Dis Manibus certainly fits into that category, but the subject matter is unusual as it is a Neoclassical one of the kind more usually seen in the work of his near-contemporaries Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Albert Moore. At the time that Dîs Manibus was painted, Alma-Tadema was achieving remarkable success by featuring authentic details in his imagined depictions of ancient Rome, and he was lauded for his subtle use of colour, particularly shades of white.

It has been suggested that with his experimentation with white and neoclassical themes in Dîs Manibus , Rossetti was rising to the challenge of Alma Tadema’s success. However, Rossetti was also experimenting with the use of whites as early as 1849-50 with Ecce Ancilla Domini! in which white is the dominant colour, an incredibly radical undertaking in mid-nineteenth century British painting.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849-50 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) Oil on Canvas, 1849-50 Tate

Rossetti’s early experimentation was repeated again in the 1860s with Lady Lilith, as he layered different tints of the colour – or non-colour – to stunning effect against a dark background.


Lady Lilith, Oil on Canvas (1866-68, altered 1872-3), Delaware Art Museum

In Dîs Manibus, the use of white serves to remind us of the absence of the woman’s departed husband. Her pale wraith-like face and drapery gives her an unworldly quality, and here, we sense, is someone not quite living in this world,  nor the next. The roses add to the pale, subtle tonality and, as the symbols of Venus, signify the endurance of love, even after death.


The medallion frame was designed by Rossetti and made by Foord and Dickinson. For a discussion of this see Lynn Roberts’ excellent Frame Blog  https://theframeblog.com/tag/millais/


The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Rossetti’s Radical Vision (A blog for #PRBDay)

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Tate

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Tate

1848 was a tumultuous year with revolutions rocking the despotic Ancien Regime states across Europe and Latin America. Even in Britain, a nation not known for its revolutionary spirit, the Chartist protests against the authoritarian state caused much fear that the powers of the state were under great threat.

It was in this climate that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed on 15th November 1848. Until relatively recently it was art historical orthodoxy that the PRB, not to mention the Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism and Arts & Crafts they inspired, were apolitical and reactionary; that their use of historical and mythological material was about escapism and gaudy dressing up and very little else. It is an idea that still emerges in the work of some art historians and critics who have no idea what they are talking about (Yes, I’m looking at you, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian, amongst others….)

Of course that, to put it politely, is a load of old nonsense. The point of  my post today is to argue quite the opposite. That the very first painting signed ‘P.R.B.’ to be exhibited in public was, in fact, a statement of radical artistic intent.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first completed oil painting, and the first publicly exhibited work to bear the initials P.R.B of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of idealistic young writers and artists who banded together in 1848 with the express intention of transforming art and literature in Britain.

The painting is of a scene from the early life of the pre-annunciation Virgin Mary. It purportedly depicts an episode from her education, a scene which is entirely conjured from Rossetti’s imagination. Even the context of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and the characters who inhabit it is complex. A young Anglo-Italian man Dante Gabriel Rossetti — the son of Gabriele Rossetti, an exiled Italian patriot and a supporter of the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Mazzini — whilst living in England during the turbulent years of European Revolution and English Chartist Revolt, paints his mother, Frances, sister, Christina and a family retainer known as ‘Old Williams’ in an imagined scene based on an apocryphal Christian story. The narrative depicted in the painting of The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary is based upon an entirely apocryphal legend rather than any part of the biblical canon.  The earliest and most comprehensive source is the Infancy Gospel of James which dates from the second half of the second century AD. However, this particular scene doesn’t even feature in that apocryphal text; it is drawn entirely from Rossetti’s imagination.

Under the instruction of her mother, St. Anne, Mary sits embroidering a lily. The lily is standing in a vase and is being held and watered by an angel-child. The vase stands on a pile of books which, like the embroidering of the lily, seem to form the basis of the girl’s education. Outside, her father, St. Joachim, stands pruning the grapevine that twines the trellis. It is a deceptively straightforward scene for a painting which is layered with symbolism and meaning.

Even the, seemingly, innocuous image of the Virgin embroidering a lily is full of meaning.  Unusually for someone creating a piece of decorative art Mary is copying the plant from life; she is embroidering a ‘still life’. In creating this scene for us, Rossetti is saying something which was unheard of in 1848; that the decorative art of embroidery is equal to that of painting. By immortalising this statement in paint he is, indeed, making that doubly clear. It was this assertion of the equality of the arts, that ‘making’ was as important as painting and sculpting, that would directly inspire William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement which came into being just over a decade later.

As a painting taking as its subject matter the Virgin Mary’s future role as ‘Mother of God’, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is all about potential.  Since the inception of Christianity as a set of beliefs separate from those of Judaism, the Old Testament has been read and examined as a prophetic text in which the events of the New Testament are foreshadowed. Symbolism as prophecy is central to the art, literature and philosophy of the Middle Ages. In The Girlhood , Rossetti adopts and adapts conventions found in medieval painting and creates a work ripe to bursting with symbolic detail which foretells and foreshadows other narratives and myths.

There is no getting away from the fact that the symbolism Rossetti uses in this painting is extremely complex, indeed amazingly so for the work of an 18-year-old young man, so please bear with me as I do my best to unpick it:

The palm on the floor represents Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and is also a symbol of joy and celebration; in this case, the joy of the Virgin at her blessedness in being chosen by God to bear his only son. The seven-thorned briar which crosses the palm prefigures her sorrow at the death of her son who is also the Son of God, the briar being the crown of thorns and the number seven represents God in Biblical numerology. The crossed trellis upon which a section of the grapevine coils and curls predicts the Cross, upon which Christ will be crucified, tortured and killed and, unlike the rest of the vine, this section does not bear any fruit. The vine itself is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament wherein it represents the land and people of Israel. However, in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin the vine is a token of the coming of Christ, for in the New Testament the familiar Old Testament symbolism is radically altered and in the Gospel of Saint John Christ is proclaimed and proclaims himself the true vine:

I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and that every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit […] I am the vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (Jn. 15.1-5).

In Christian thought Christ is the vine and The Church the branches. Further Christ symbolism is found throughout the painting. The city in the far distance is Jerusalem, the real and metaphysical City of God. Mary will soon give birth to the Christ who himself IS the New Jerusalem- the New World to come in The Book of Revelation of Saint John the Divine. The oil lamp on the wall also represents Christ as the Light of the World, a subject which just a few years later Rossetti’s fellow Pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt would depict to such enduring acclaim.

The Light of the World, William Holman Hunt, 1851-3, Keble College Oxford.

The Light of the World, William Holman Hunt, 1851-3, Keble College Oxford.

Mary as Virgin and Mother of God is also represented symbolically in the scene. Her virtues of charity, faithfulness, hope, prudence, temperance and fortitude are writ large on the side of the books of her education. The portative organ just behind her represents purity and the lily she is embroidering not only symbolises purity but also  Mary’s everlasting virginity. The angel watering the lily specifically refers to Mary’s girlhood, for she is being watched over and tended by the divine.

The rose in the jar on the wall dividing the room from the garden also represents the Virgin. In medieval mysticism, the Virgin Mary is the Rosa Mystica or Mystic Rose which was turned from white to red by the blood of Christ. Indeed, Christ himself is often described as the blossom of the rose of Mary. Usually the rose which symbolises Mary is depicted as the rose without a thorn indicating her flawless nature. But Rossetti  deliberately paints a rose with thorns that prophecy the Virgin’s future grief at the death of her son.The image of the Virgin as suffering rose will later be beautifully expressed in the Christian mysticism of the Aesthetic poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins:

What was the colour of that Blossom bright?/ White to begin with, immaculate white. / But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood./ When the rose ran in crimsonings down the cross wood.  (Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Rosa Mystica’, The Irish Monthly, May 1898, n.p.)

The child-angel tending the lily also prefigures the visitation of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, something which Rossetti himself depicted in his 1849-50 companion work to The Girlhood,  Ecce Ancilla Domini! (Note the angel presenting the Virgin with the lily and the finished embroidery next to her bed)

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation 1849-50 Dante Gabriel Rossetti http://www.tate.org.uk/art/w

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation 1849-50 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tate.

The vessel which the angel waters in The Girlhood waters indicates that God is preparing and nurturing the girl Mary as a vessel to carry his only-begotten son. The halos encircling the heads of all three figures represent their holy and righteous natures, but that tilted behind the head of the Virgin, which seems to cast light over her golden hair, is more significant yet as it reminds us that the Virgin will also appear in another guise in the Apocalypse to come:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth and pained to be delivered. (Rev. 12. 1,2)

In this aspect, the figure of Mary will not only be Mother of Christ but also Mother of the Apocalypse, the ensuing second coming of Christ and the metaphysical New Jerusalem or City of God which can be glimpsed on the hills beyond in the painting.

Resting on the trellis is the haloed dove representing the Holy Ghost. The trellis bounds and yet blurs the divide between the interior and exterior and although representative of the Crucifixion with its form of a cross, it also blurs the boundaries between present and future. The dove symbolises the aspect of God which will soon impregnate the Virgin and, from the perspective of the medieval world, the nineteenth-century artist or twenty-first century viewer, has already fulfilled its promise to do so.

The red cloak draped over the wall/threshold  not only foreshadows the cloak of Christ the Centurions will draw lots for at the Crucifixion but also  the notion that the Holy Trinity will soon be completed. The golden embroidery upon it depicts an unfinished Tri-point. The Alpha-Omega of Jehovah and flame of the Holy Ghost are complete but there is, as yet, no symbol for the Son. At this moment the new nature of God as the Three-in-One is awaiting its completion. As Rossetti tells us in the second sonnet to the poem accompanying the painting:

These are the symbols. On that cloth of red/ I’ the centre is the Tripoint: perfect each,/ Except the second of its points, to teach/ That Christ is not yet born.                          (Dante Gabriel Rossetti,’ Mary’s Girlhood (For a Picture)’ circa 1848.)

In the later middle ages this cloak would have a highly mystical resonance in relation to the Virgin and the incarnation of Christ. In the years 1200 to 1500 there was a school of mystical thought which spoke of Mary as the actual body of Christ, his fleshly component and the garment in which the spirit of Christ was made incarnate. The mystic, composer and author Hildegard of Bingen described Mary as the ‘tunica humanitas’ (human tunic) which Christ wears, whilst St. Francis of Assisi  describes her as ‘Christ’s Robe’. The cloak then not only symbolises Christ incarnate but also the Virgin Mary herself, and their mystical union which will both soon come to pass and, in a mystical sense, already has.

So, if you have made it through all that symbolism, what relevance does it have to the world of 1848 in which Rossetti was painting? What does all the mysticism mean to the PRB?

In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin the Virgin’s inner qualities are made explicit through the objects surrounding her. This interweaving of soul into body and of body and soul into the very fabric of the world that surrounds her is vital to this work. As is the idea that all of the arts are equal and that the very act of creation (be it of a child, a painting or an embroidery) is a spiritual act. The material world is always imbued with the spiritual and vice versa, ideas which are intrinsic to Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelitism and his later Aestheticism.

Rossetti choses to make the subject matter of this, his first oil painting and the first publicly exhibited to be signed ‘P.R.B.’, a depiction of a world on the very brink of radical transformation, a revolution resulting from the simple event of the birth of a child. It is no coincidence that this subject matter was chosen; in 1848 Rossetti and his friends and colleagues in the Brotherhood believed that their own mid-nineteenth century Victorian world was on the cusp of a cultural-spiritual revolution in the arts.  And in many ways it was.

Time, is a very elastic concept in all of  Rossetti’s work; it ebbs and flows and refuses to follow a straight line. He does not paint the time he lives in (apart from in his unfinished painting Found)  because, in both his art and his poetry, an imagined and symbolic past can tell as more about our present than depicting the contemporary world ever could. It is not nostalgia or escapism, it is a re-imagining of the past to comment on the present and imagine a better future.

Through Rossetti’s deliberate use of historical artistic devices to comment on the present world, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin becomes a deliberate statement, a radical artistic manifesto. Not only was it a call for a return to the visual simplicity of medieval art and a return to symbolism in art, it was a call for artistic creation to once again be imbued with the spiritual. By ‘spiritual’ the PRB did not necessarily mean any particular creed or religion (although some members of the Brotherhood were devout Christians, Rossetti unlike many member of his family including Christina, was not) but the idea that the creation and the experience of art was, itself, a profoundly spiritual act that reconciled the material and the immaterial worlds.

#PRBDay Sunday 15 November

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Tate

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Tate

Just a little post today on behalf of my good friends at the Pre-Raphaelite Society who organise their fantastic annual  #PRBDay celebrations every 15th November to mark the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood on 15 November 1848. Lots of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorianist bloggers, scholars and enthusiasts will be involved so do take a look.

My own contribution to this auspicious day will be a blog about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first oil painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-9, which was also the first exhibited painting to be signed ‘PRB’. I’ll be explaining some of the layers of symbolism and meaning in this often overlooked painting, and arguing that this work by the teenage Rossetti was, in fact, a radical artistic manifesto.

The Pre-Raphaelite Society work  hard to  spread the love and share knowledge about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, their circle(s) and their many followers. Not to mention and the profound influence they had on art,  design and literature  in Britain, Europe, America and even further afield. Tomorrow follow the hashtag #PRBDay on Facebook and Twitter, and do follow Madeleine Pearce @nouveaudigital Serena Trowbridge @serena_t and @PreRaphSoc on Twitter for all the #PRBDay fun.

Apes, Anchors and Ancient Wisdom: Popular Dream Divination in the Nineteenth Century

Despite a day job which involves working with some very grand examples of 19th and 20th century art and design, I have long had a love affair with folk art, ephemera and popular forms of visual and literary culture. What  fascinates me are the ways in which these objects and texts can help to shed light upon popular ideas and beliefs, especially those outside of mainstream religion or thinking.

The New Universal Dream-book or the Dreamer's Sure Guide to the Hidden Mysteries of Futurity. Thomas Richardson, Derby 1838. British Library.

The New Universal Dream-Book or the Dreamer’s Sure Guide to the Hidden Mysteries of Futurity.
Thomas Richardson, Derby 1838. British Library.

One such form of popular belief was in ‘oneiromancy’, or divination through dreams. In the mid 19th century (and into the early twentieth century). ‘Dream Books’ such as “The Universal Dream Book” (Derby 1838) and the particularly wonderful “Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book” (London 1845) were cheap, printed booklets (chap books) sold from house to house or at fairs by pedlars. By using one of these handy manuals the user could, it was claimed, draw upon their night time visions to predict their future. The books consisted of a list of subjects and symbols that might feature in one’s dreams, and an explanation of what future events these would presage.

Park's new Egyptian dream book, or, dreamer's oracle; clearly showing how all things past, present, and to come may be ascertained by dreams: translated from an old manuscript found at Thebes. By an eminent astrologer. London, 1845. The British Library

Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book, or, dreamer’s oracle; clearly showing how all things past, present, and to come may be ascertained by dreams: translated from an old manuscript found at Thebes. By an eminent astrologer. London, 1845. British Library

Sometimes the explanations offered were fairly obvious, such as the New Universal Dream Book’s claim that: “Anchor. To dream that you see one signifies great assurance and certain hope”. However, sometimes they were less so: “Apes. To dream of apes forebodes no good, they are a sign of wicked and secret enemies, who will seek, by many devices, to injure you…”  And the assertion in Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book that to dream of “Laughing…is very unfortunate’ seems a touch counterintuitive,

Nevertheless, is interesting that even in the mid 19th century, the age of the Industrial Revolution, manifold scientific discovery and the growth of Christian Evangelicalism, a time when many historians have claimed that popular ‘folk’ practices and beliefs were on the wane, these beliefs were as strong as ever. Rather than even attempting to present dream divination as a ‘science’, dream books claimed to draw upon some ancient source of wisdom. ‘The Universal Dream Book’ professed to be based on prophecies of the medieval Yorkshire seer Mother Shipton (AKA Ursula Southeil c. 1488–1561). Others such as the particularly wonderful ‘Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book’ published by Archibald Alexander Park (London 1845) asserted that it was derived from an Ancient Egyptian  manuscript unearthed at Thebes.

Egyptian mysteries and secret knowledge had been regarded as a source of magic and mysticism in Western Europe at least since the Renaissance. A whole welter of popular beliefs, as well as more arcane practices such as Hermetic Magic, Alchemy and Freemasonry, and even the seemingly non-esoteric craft of engraving, claimed that the secret knowledge they possessed had a lineage which could be traced back to the Hermetica, a series of secret texts ascribed to the Graeco-Egyptian deity Hermes Trismegistus.

Moreover, during the 18th and 19th centuries, a heady combination of looting and archaeological excavations were uncovering all manner of Egyptian artefacts that demonstrated a culture suffused with belief in ritual and the supernatural. These included ancient papyrus dream books, such as that found at Deir-el-Medina (now in the British Museum).

The Dream Book, Papyrus giving a list of dreams and their interpretation. From Deir el-Medina, Egypt 19th Dynasty, around 1275 BC, British Museum.

The Dream Book,
Papyrus giving a list of dreams and their interpretation.
From Deir el-Medina, Egypt
19th Dynasty, around 1275 BC, British Museum.


It was these ancient Egyptian texts that provided the blueprint for the 18th, 19th and early 20th century imitations that followed. However, as entertaining as the lists of dreams are, for me it is the illustrations in the nineteenth century dream books that are of greatest interest. Some are positively strange and very much in the vein of the literary and artistic Gothic horrors which had been popular since the late 18th century. Skeletons, serpents, body parts, dastardly cads, and prone, helpless heroines are the stuff of this world of symbolism.

As the fold-out illustrations depictions female dreamers in both chap books indicate,  dream books were particularly aimed at, and popular with, women. This is not because women were more ‘suggestible’ or ‘superstitious’ than men; most likely it was because the vast majority of women lived precarious lives dependent on fathers, husbands and other menfolk. If Dame Fortune didn’t look benevolently upon a woman and offer her a kind and gentle husband or a generous father or brother or uncle, or some other means of financial support, many would face destitution, or worse. The idea that dream interpretation (or some other mode of fortune telling) might predict the future, for good or ill, must have been hugely comforting.

Park's New Egyptian Dream book, London, 1845. The British Library

Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book, London, 1845. The British Library

As the illustration on Park’s leaflet shows, our female dreamer is being visited by a whole host of visions: A cornucopia is overflowing with fruit, signalling abundance; dancers symbolise fun, frivolity and entertainment; her successful future courtship, marriage and motherhood is played out; a treasure chest is overflowing with gold and jewels.

But these images of wealth and happiness and plenty are interspersed with more dangerous, or even occult, symbols. Coiled round the treasure chest is a serpent, symbolising the dangers of material wealth; it may also symbolise the dangerous sexual qualities of men who might seduce and abandon a woman to a dismal fate. Two men fight a duel to the death, presumably fighting over her honour or her love. A winged demonic figure holds out a glass containing a tiny snake, presumably a symbol of the ‘demon drink’. A strange, half covered skeletal procession carries plumes and a coffin, and we are reminded that even though the church is a place of happy weddings, it is also a site of death and burial. Another smaller image on the illustration to Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book depicts a dreaming man who is quite possibly the beloved of our female dreamer. The fact that he is ignoring the directions of the spectral female figure of his vision may be the cause of our female dreamer’s potential future ill fortune.

Presiding over all of these dreams of good and ill is a personification of the Sun (or perhaps the Sun god Helios) who bears quite a resemblance to William Blake’s vision of The Sun at His Eastern Gate (c.1816-20), albeit one with clothing.

William Blake (1757-1827_ The Sun at His Eastern Gate, c.1816-20, Watercolour, The Morgan library & Museum NYC.

William Blake (1757-1827_ The Sun at His Eastern Gate, c.1816-20, Watercolour, The Morgan library & Museum NYC.

Here, perhaps, the Sun is at his eastern gate, waiting to rouse the sleeper from her dreams. be they sweet or of a more nightmarish quality.

Most interesting of all of the symbols in the illustration is the ancient symbol of the snake swallowing its tail, or ouroboros. The ouroboros (literally ‘tail-devourer’ in Greek )has been used in alchemy, Hermetic magic and belief and Gnosticism. It can be seen to symbolise the cyclical nature of life and the universe, and in Ancient Egypt it also represented the path of the sun. For our dreamer the light will return after her night of dreaming, and the cycle of life and death represented in the symbols of her dreams will continue eternally.

In the twentieth century the psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung built a number of ideas and experiments around oneiromancy. Unlike Freud who  saw dreams as symbolic of the unconscious thought of the individual, Jung developed the idea that symbolic dreams could represent the archetypes that underpinned the Collective Unconscious. This was, Jung asserted, our shared spiritual humanity. But Jung’s codification of the strange, wonderful and, sometimes, terrifying world of our dreams is only one manifestation of the enduring belief that the fruits of our slumbers may offer us some enlightenment and some comfort.

Magic, Mayhem and Murder: Frederick Sandys’ Medea


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As a Norfolk gal, albeit one in exile in Scotland,  the (relatively few) famous sons and daughters of my home county have always interested me. One such is the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) who unfortunately never made much of a living as an artist, despite exceptional talent. For a while Sandys shared Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s house until the latter fell out with him over what he felt was plagiarism of his own stunning portraits of the 1860s. Some of Sandy’s work certainly owes a debt to his mentor, but sometimes we see a glimmer of something quite different to Rossetti’s Paeans to unobtainable love, and one such painting is his glorious Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1866-68. Oil on board with gilded background, Birmingham Museums and Art gallery

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1866-68. Oil on board with gilded background, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Here we see the Sorceress Medea, abandoned by her lover Jason after she has helped him capture the golden fleece in return for him promising to marry her. Medea used her herbal magic to drug the Dragon which guarded the fleece. Jason’s departing ship can be seen in the golden Japanese-influenced background- as can the golden fleece itself- and as her husband leaves her for Glauce the daughter of the King of Corinth, Medea begins to cast the spell which will destroy her rival and all of her rival’s loved ones, except Jason (she will ‘destroy’ him by murdering the two children she bore him). She has cast her magick circle with red thread which may symbolise the red thread of traditional Gaelic witchcraft practice, or possibly the red string of fate/ marriage which appears in both Japanese and Chinese legend (the late 1860s are the beginning of the period of the craze for all things Japanese and Chinese amongst Aesthetes and ‘Artistic’ types in Britain, hence the Japanese influence on he gold background). Medea is also wearing strands of coral around her neck which do act as protection and mirror the red circle, but were also a fashionable aesthetic device used by both Sandys and his mentor Rossetti.

medea-sandys detail

Within the magick circle we see two copulating toads representing the lust of Jason and his new lover. There are also the poisonous berries of the Belladonna/ Deadly Nightshade – a plant which bears the name of the Third Fate in Greek myth Atropos, who is the Fate who cuts the thread of life for each mortal with her shears. Next to the toads and berries is a ‘Jenny Hanniver’ which is a dried stingray fashioned into a monstrous folk art cryptozoological creature by sailors (a bit like a Feejee Mermaid) and which are believed to have magical powers and are used in magical rituals by the curanderos in Veracruz in Mexico.


A ‘Jenny Haniver’

There is also an iridescent Paua or Abalone shell, used as a ceremonial vessel in numerous coastal or island indigenous cultures; this one contains blood.The chafing dish (an item usually used in Solomonic Magick rituals) is decorated with a salamander, which can signify temptation and burning lust and which was believed to contain a deadly poison. Outside the circle standing protective guard over her magickal workings is a statuette of the Egyptian cat-god of protection Bastet, and the bottom of the gilded ‘Japanese screen’ decoration behind her is a row of hieroglyphs including owls and scarabs. The owl may be associated with death and the underworld and the scarab with funerary rites. Above them, cranes, usually associated in China and Japan with happiness, good fortune and longevity, are also departing as all hope for Medea is lost.