Monday, August 25, 2008

Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1849

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was just twenty years old when his painting Girlhood of Mary Virgin was first exhibited on March 24, 1849. It was the first work to include the initials "P.R.B.", clearly visible in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas (click here to see a larger version of this painting at the Art Renewal Center).

I find it very interesting to see how much Rossetti's style changed throughout his life. This painting clearlly ties in with medieval and early rennaisance art, though the near photographic precision of the painting is quite modern (for more on the Pre-Raphaelite's combination of medieval style with modern techniques, see Barringer, 8-11). Devices like the haloes above Mary and her parents, Joachim and Anna (with the Latin form of their names inscribed on the inside--Rossetti writes "S.Maria" on Mary's halo) would have seemed instantly strange and archaic to Victorian viewers, who were not used to seeing paintings so steeped in symbolism.

Rossetti composed the following poem to accompany the painting. It was included in the exhibition catalogue. Notice how Rossetti has used his writing to help explain the symbolism in the painting to his viewers:

This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect,
God's Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
Dwelt young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Unto God's will she brought devout respect,
Profound simplicity of intellect,
And supreme patience. From her mother's knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect.

So held she through her girlhood; as it were
An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows and is quiet. Till, one dawn at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all, -- yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed;
Because the fulness of the time was come.

These are the symbols. On that cloth of red
I' the centre is the Tripoint: perfect each,
Except the centre of its points,to teach
That Christ is not yet born. The books -- whose head
Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said --
Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich;
Therefore on them the lily standeth, which
Is innocence, being interpreted.

The seven-thorn'd brier and palm seven-leaved
Are here great sorrow and her great reward
Until the end be full, the Holy One
Abides without. She soon shall have achieved
Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord
Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son.

-- D. G. Rossetti

I love the way Rossetti constructed his little puzzle for the viewer to decipher through a combination of image and text. Lines like "[u]ntil the end be full, the Holy One Abides without"--referring to the dove, which symbolises the Holy Spirit--provide clues for viewers that might not immeadiately pick up on all the symbolism.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Library, 1998.


K Spoering said...

I have never seen this painting before. I love the 'modern' looking scene outside the window! Thanks for sharing this.

A World Away said...


Not being an art historian I find your blog easy to read and understand and thank you for sources consulted!

I'm pretty sure I did get a chance to see a Rossetti drawing at the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon of all places. We were on a road trip through Manitoba & Saskatchewan in the summer of 2007. It was a wonderful exhibition with early European drawings and paintings with some designs & drawings by the likes of Morris & Burne Jones.

Rossetti also did some design bookbindings which is an area of interest I have.

I do enjoy paintings with symbolisim and allegory and enjoy the design wonders and drawings of Morris, Crane and Burne Jones.

I was recently in Florence and took in some of the Museums including the Uffizi. I must say I was in awe to be able to stand in front of works such as Botticelli's Primavera and The Birth of Venus. I appreciated the pieces very much but being a lay person without any formal art history training I felt that I missing something. Fortunately I had the the gallery catalog with me and could gain a better understanding of the intent of the painter. I must say that I did not really get to see everything there (who could?)but chose to take in only a few works in detail and spend time with them.

The initial idea was to see as much as possible as I may not get back for some time. I killed that thought pretty quickly.

Would you care to comment on these paintings at some juncture?

willow said...

Lovely Rossetti piece! This particular one reminds me a little of Carl Larsson's paintings of his home and family.

M.Kate said...

Beautiful post and love the picture. Have a great day :D

Tracy said...

I don't recall this on either...But this is a lovely early Rosetti work! In many ways I prefer is his later style, though this early work has a natural, and as you say almost photographic quality, which intrigues. I've always like the mystery and heavy symoblism used in works by the PRB...layers of stories within a story. Great post, Margaret! Happy Day ((HUGS))