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.
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)
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.