Christmas Pre-Raphaelite

It seems to me that when Yule-time draws near, details of Pre-Raphaelite paintings appear frequently on greetings cards, Christmas carol CD covers and probably tea towels (Pre-Raphaelitism and tea towels have apparently been closely associated for some years). I say this as if it’s some bad thing; I’m perfectly happy to see all the Burne-Jones stained-glass angels and Rossetti maid-musicians that ever were. There’s something quite Pre-Raphaelite about an English winter: the revived medieval traditions of carols and Yule logs; the warm Christmas colour-palette of green, red and gold reminiscent of the tones of Rossetti’s watercolours; the more gothic quality of dark evenings, cold nights and ghost stories. One of my favourite pieces of trivia is, of course, that Christina Rossetti wrote the original poem of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (though I can never remember who set it to music or when). Here I thought I’d share a trio of Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings with a Christmas setting or theme.

There are two pictures by Rossetti titled A Christmas Carol. The first (below) is one of his rich watercolours of medieval subjects from the 1850s. Its ‘Xmas 1857-58’ inscription places it in the timescale of the Arthurian mural project at the Oxford Union in 1857-59, which saw a resurgence of high-spirited medievalism in the Pre-Raphaelite programme and brought Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones closer together as artists. Elizabeth Siddal modelled for the central figure, a queen whose flowing auburn hair must surely hold a record for some of the longest locks in Pre-Raphaelite art. Dressed in a scarlet gown, she is seated in a curious piece of composite furniture which combines a simple clavichord and, overhead, a cupboard or shelf cluttered with bottles and a crown (presumably the clavichord can be removed, otherwise she’d have trouble actually getting out of the chair!). Her long fingers are about to depress the keys of the clavichord, leading to the suggestion or anticipation of music frequent throughout Rossetti’s art; note also the dreamy, far-away expression of her face, which implies that she plays her music absentmindedly or unconsciously. Meanwhile, her two handmaids wearing purple and green attend to her copious hair, one running a comb through it and the other reaching for a toilette bottle. The mistletoe, the Nativity scenes in the style of an illuminated manuscript decorating the front of the clavichord — which, close observation reveals, seem to be small figurines set in a shallow box — and the thin holly bushes in large pots on either side, indicate the time of year.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Christmas Carol', captioned 'Xmas 1857-8'. Watercolour on paper. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Christmas Carol’, dated ‘Xmas 1857-8’. Watercolour on paper. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

Rossetti’s watercolours from this time also inspired poems by William Morris and, in this case, Algernon Charles Swinburne, who had met Rossetti at Oxford in 1857 and wrote ‘A Christmas Carol: suggested by a drawing of Mr. D. G. Rossetti’s’ presumably also in Christmas of that year. Rossetti’s painting has little in the way of narrative or subject matter, so Swinburne was free to supply his own interpretation. The opening stanza runs:

Three damsels in the queen’s chamber,
The queen’s mouth was most fair;
She spake a word of God’s mother
As the combs went in her hair.
Mary that is of might,
Bring us to thy Son’s sight.

The rest of the poem, which seems to retell the Nativity, is not a direct representation in verse of Rossetti’s Christmas Carol. Rather, Swinburne uses the Rossetti as the loose starting-point for his own poetic fantasy.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Christmas Carol', 1867. Oil on panel. Sold at Sotheby's in December 2013 for £4,562,500.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Christmas Carol’, 1867. Oil on panel. Sold at Sotheby’s in December 2013 for £4,562,500.

Rossetti’s other Christmas Carol (above) came into the limelight again just over a year ago when it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s. In the 1860s Rossetti moved away from medievalist watercolours to paint his opulent half-length portraits of luxuriant women — here a laundress named Ellen Smith, ‘discovered’ by Rossetti in 1863. Still, like the earlier painting the coupling of music and femininity is a prominent theme; then a clavichord, now a gilded stringed instrument and her voice singing, according to Rossetti’s studio assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, ‘Hodie Jesu Christus natus est Hallelujah‘ (‘Today is Jesus Christ born, Hallelujah,’ presumably derived from a 17th-century Christmas song by Jan Sweelinck). It can thus be compared to other Rossettis of women playing stringed instruments, such as The Blue Bower (1865), La Ghirlandata (1873) and Veronica Veronese (1872). It is worth to also noting the frame of the painting (detail below; Rossetti usually designed his frames himself), inscribed with a quotation from an early English Christmas carol which Rossetti had translated and compiled for a small booklet, Ancient Christmas Carols (c. 1850). The emphasis in this inscription and in the woman’s song on the birth of Christ is echoed in the gold pendant hanging beside the woman’s head, adorned with an image of Virgin and Child. Once again, like the earlier picture, holly is used to signify Christmastime, and the painting is an exercise in balancing rich warm colours and layers of pattern with musical elements.

Detail of the frame of 'A Christmas Carol'
Detail of the frame of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1867). ‘Here a maid, well apparelled, shall sing a song of Christ’s birth with the tune of Bululalow: / Jesus Christus hodie Natus est de Virgine. / (Winchester Mysteries.)’

Completing this trio of Rossetti paintings is The Blue Closet (below), which could easily be viewed as a pendant piece to the first Christmas Carol picture. Something about The Blue Closet particularly resonates with me — its symmetrical pairs of figures, its aural elements of bells and song, its lack of identifiable subject matter, and its harmonious balance of purples, greens, blues, whites and golds (like an arrangement of music), all combine for an enigmatic, even claustrophobic effect. Rossetti himself simply and elusively described the picture as ‘some people playing music.’ Then there’s William Morris’s beautiful and equally dreamy poem, inspired by the watercolour, which does overlay a loose narrative on the painting and its pictorial details — though Morris, like Rossetti, was often more interested in conveying a particular mood and series of emotions, and his poem is a separate work of art in its own right. (See a reduced version below.) But the Christmas setting is apparent in the holly adorning the strange, hybrid musical instrument. Some similarities between this picture and the 1857 A Christmas Carol are the recurring background of blue tiles painted in both instances with curious symbols, and the sidelong poses of the right-hand attendant in A Christmas Carol and the gold-crowned queen plucking the strings in The Blue Closet — perhaps an indication that Rossetti reused his sketches and models in A Christmas Carol.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-57
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blue Closet’, 1856-57. Watercolour on paper. Tate.

From William Morris’s ‘The Blue Closet’ (1857):

Lady Alice, Lady Louise,
Between the wash of the tumbling seas
We are ready to sing, if so ye please;
So lay your long hands on the keys;
Sing, ‘Laudate pueri.

[…]

Alice the Queen, and Louise the Queen,
Two damozels wearing purple and green,
Four lone ladies dwelling here
From day to day and year to year;
And there is none to let us go;
To break the locks of the door below,
Or shovel away the heaped-up snow;
And when we die no man will know
That we are dead; but they give us leave,
Once every year on Christmas-eve,
To sing in the Closet Blue one song.

[…]

Through the floor shot up a lily red,
With a patch of earth from the land of the dead;
For he was strong in the land of the dead.

I realise there are other Rossetti works which could be included — The Seed of David, an altarpiece commissioned for Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, which depicts a nativity scene (below) — but this post is long enough as it is! If anything, I hope I’ve illustrated that there’s much more to be said about these works by DGR which, though very beautiful, have more interpretations and insights to yield. In the meantime, I hope my readers have a very happy Christmas and a great start to the New Year. Christmas Pre-Raphaelite!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Seed of David', 1856. Watercolour design for the Llandaff Cathedral altarpiece.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David’, 1856. Watercolour design for the Llandaff Cathedral altarpiece.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Seed of David', 1858-64. Oil on panel. Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David’, 1858-64. Oil on panel. Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff.

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Further information

  • The full text of William Morris’s ‘The Blue Closet’ on The Victorian Web.
  • The full text of Swinburne’s poem ‘A Christmas Carol’, inspired by the Rossetti watercolour.
  • ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’, the song apparently sung by the lady in the oil painting A Christmas Carol, as performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.
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The Love of Dante: ‘Dantis Amor’ (1860)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, 1860

I thought it would be nice to discuss the namesake of my blog’s url, dantisamor. It’s a typically Rossettian title with allusions to Dante Alighieri and divine love and with a Latin or Italianate feel to it, so I thought it would make a pretty-sounding WordPress name! Contextually, Dantis Amor also has connections with that divine palace of Art which I am sadly yet to visit, Red House, and therefore with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Let’s see why.

Rossetti painted Dantis Amor, which translates as ‘Dante’s Love’, on a panel on the door of a settle in Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built in 1860. ‘More a poem than a house,’ in the words of Rossetti, Red House was designed by the architect Philip Webb as the home of William Morris and his new bride Jane. While today Bexleyheath has been absorbed into the suburbs of London, in the 1860s it was still very much a rural village miles from the city, and Red House was actually built on the land of an orchard. Its name derives from the colour of its bricks, and its distinctive style, based on medieval vernacular buildings, went on to influence Arts and Crafts architecture in the nineteenth century and beyond. Morris intended it to become a locus of artistic energy and collaboration, with the Burne-Joneses (Edward was also recently married, to Georgiana MacDonald), Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown and other artists and poets frequently visiting of the household. Many accounts of lively parties and garden gatherings survive. Elaborate, collaborative schemes were put in place to decorate the walls, windows and furnishings of the house with paintings and hangings, all in the medieval manner. Beautiful murals by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, which were (shockingly!) covered over with panelling and whitewash by later tenants, are still being uncovered today. In the airy, barn-like drawing-room upstairs stands the large, heavy settle whose cupboard doors were originally painted with scenes by Rossetti — these were removed sometime before 1863. Dantis Amor, the central panel, is now in the Tate, and was included in the 2012 exhibition along with two other Dante-themed panels (below) from the Red House settle (although they were only displayed in Washington).

Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the central half-quadrangle.
Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the rear garden. Image copyright National Trust.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence' and 'The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden', 1859. Like 'Dantis Amor', these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence’ and ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden’, 1859. Like ‘Dantis Amor’, these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle. Note the winged figure of Love bearing a sundial in the middle.

The complex iconography of Dantis Amor — and almost all of Rossetti’s other Dante-themed paintings — is derived from a literary source, Dante’s autobiographical La Vita Nuova (The New Life) (1295), in which the medieval Italian poet immortalises his unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari. It was a fundamental favourite of Rossetti’s, who even produced a translation of it in as early as the 1840s. His father, the Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti, was an eminent Dante scholar, and J. B. Bullen writes of ‘the imaginative life of the Rossetti household [being] dominated by the figure of Dante Alighieri.’ Much has been written of Dante Rossetti growing up to live in a Dantesque dream, venerating and beatifying Elizabeth Siddal as Dante did Beatrice. According to the Rossetti Archive, the title ‘Dantis Amor’ has a threefold meaning, referring to Dante’s love of Beatrice, God and Love itself, even though Dante himself does not appear in the painting. The colour palette of Dantis Amor is just gorgeous, with its blend of rich golds, royal blues and fiery reds. Standing at the centre is the allegorical figure of Love, as an angel with sweeping scarlet wings, a golden robe and a halo of auburn hair. The composition is strikingly geometric, divided up into diagonal, symmetrical segments. Framed in a crescent moon in the bottom left corner is the head of Beatrice — she looks diagonally up to the haloed head of Christ in the top left. A bottom-left to top-right diagonal separates two celestial realms: the golden world of Christ, filled with radiant sunbursts, and the nightly world of Beatrice, patterned with gold and silver stars. Here Rossetti visualises the final words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Detail of Christ
Detail of Christ. The Latin inscription, ‘qui est per omnia saecula benedictus’, is the last line of ‘La Vita Nuova’ and means, ‘Who is eternally blessed’.
Detail of Beatrice
Detail of Beatrice. The facial features are probably those of Elizabeth Siddal.
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial

The angel Love holds a long bow and arrow, at an angle which counterbalances the other diagonal, and also what looks at first glance to be a big white bowl. This is in fact an unfinished sundial; a completed drawing for the picture (below) shows that its shadow would have pointed to the 9th hour. For Dante, the number 9 had deep, symbolic connections with Beatrice: he was nine years old when he first met her (she was eight), his love for her lasted for nine years, and she supposedly passed away at nine o’clock. Since Beatrice was represented by the number 3 (also indicative of the Holy Trinity), she could be tripled to make 9. The angel’s sundial points to this number in memory of the hour of her death, as in Rossetti’s later painting Beata Beatrix (see links below), and is thus an indication that Dantis Amor portrays the moment of Beatrice’s transfiguration into heaven. The figure of the sundial-bearing Love can also be seen on the frame between the other Red House Dante painting previously shown above, and a preparatory drawing for this shows the angel in a similar attitude. Clearly, it was an image which fixated Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial pointing to the 9th hour.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial casting its shadow on the 9th hour, and it’s labelled with 1290, the year of Beatrice’s death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860. Like the drawing above, this picture bears the date of Beatrice’s death, apparently on the 9th June. The Latin inscription, ‘quomodo sedet sola civitas’, is the last line of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and means ‘Love which moves the sun and other stars’.

So, there we have it. Hopefully it’s now clear why I’ve chosen such a typically Rossettian name for this blog!

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Further information

  • Extensive images of the newly-restored murals in the living-room of Red House can be found on Claudia Fiocchetti’s blog. I’m dying to go and see the paintings in situ soon! A video about the discovery and conservation of a Biblical-themed mural, possibly a collaborative venture between William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Elizabeth Siddal, can be seen on Youtube.
  • Rossetti explored the theme of the dying Beatrice in one of his most popular paintings, Beata Beatrix, which exists in several versions (the most famous is now in Tate Britain). The painting uses the features of Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862, and many regard the painting as Rossetti’s haunting memorial to his deceased wife and muse. To view the painting and listen to audio commentary by Alison Smith, see the BBC Desperate Romantics website.
  • A videoed lecture from Yale University about Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

‘How They Met Themselves’: Pre-Raphaelitism and the Double

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', watercolour version, c. 1860-64
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, watercolour version, c. 1860-64

A couple in medieval dress walk through a gloomy wood at twilight. Suddenly they encounter their doubles, exactly alike in dress and face, outlined in the gloaming by some unearthly light. The man draws his sword in astonishment; his lover collapses in a deathly swoon, her arms outstretched mournfully towards her onlooking twin. Traditionally, seeing one’s double is an omen of death: perhaps the swooning lady shall die soon after. This wholly Gothic, supernatural subject by D. G. Rossetti merges Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics with another subject I find deeply, personally fascinating: the doppelgänger, mirrors, reflections, duality, and such like. I have been interested in the idea of the double for a long time now, and what was my delight to discover a Pre-Raphaelite work depicting just that!

Several versions of How They Met Themselves exist. The earliest version, a wonderfully atmospheric pen and ink drawing (below), was executed in 1851 when Rossetti was 23, clearly suggesting that he was interested in the idea of doppelgängers from early on in his artistic career. The 1860 watercolour version (above) was actually painted on Rossetti’s honeymoon with Elizabeth Siddal — a strange, even macabre thing indeed to paint on one’s honeymoon, particularly since Lucinda Hawksley notes that the couple in the picture are clear portraits of Rossetti and Siddal themselves, which surely doesn’t bode well! Rossetti called it his ‘Bogie Drawing’ — a bogie being an evil spirit — and was clearly fixated by the haunting, doom-laden quality of the image. A third was painted in watercolours in 1864.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', pen and ink and brush version, 1851-60
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, pen and ink and brush version, 1851-60

The subject of the double has a long history, particularly in literature. In Greek mythology Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, and in Gothic tales such as Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839), James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Poor Clare (1856) and even Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-read fairy-tale The Shadow, characters are haunted and followed by their often malevolent likenesses. The doppelgänger theme — doppelgänger literally means ‘double walker’ in German — is also found in films such as the recent Black Swan, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and, less sinisterly and with a more ethereal and metaphysical tone, in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s breathtakingly beautiful The Double Life of Véronique (1991). So Rossetti was hardly the first or last to show an interest in doubles, but he was certainly one of the few in the history of art to actually depict doppelgängers. I wonder if his obsession with the subject would have seemed eccentric even for the Victorian period: the double is a truly folkloric, superstitious and arcane motif, not the stuff of serious, conventional religion or morality. Besides this, his decision to dress up his figures in slightly odd medieval clothing (the man seems to like sporting wind and brass instruments round his neck in the various versions, while the woman’s headdress looks a bit like a Star Wars helmet) makes How They Met Themselves all the weirder.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', 1864 watercolour version
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, 1864 watercolour version

Apparently, in later life, Rossetti filled his Chelsea home and studio with mirrors, giving visitors the eerie feeling of encountering their own reflections in many misty glasses. Mirrors crop up in a surprising number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings: William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Il Dolce Far Niente (1866), most pictures portraying Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott at her loom, and Ford Madox Brown’s unfinished Take Your Son, Sir!’ (1851-92), all feature looking-glasses. Meanwhile, a host of Rossettis, such as Lady Lilith (begun 1868, detail below), Lucrezia Borgia (1860-61), the drawing Love’s Mirror (1850-52), La Bella Mano (1875) and Woman Combing Her Hair (1864), have mirrors and reflections lurking in their backgrounds. The mirror in Lady Lilith is particularly intriguing: we are looking at Lilith indoors in her boudoir, and yet the mirror on the wall reflects an outdoor space, specifically the leafy upper branches of trees. Perhaps the implication is that it is a magic ‘scrying’ mirror for seeing into another world?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Lady Lilith', detail
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Lady Lilith’, detail

How They Met Themselves represents the more nightmarish, Gothic aspect of Rossetti’s work. It could be a scene from some obscure medieval ghost story, or an unconscious portent of death — Elizabeth Siddal, who is supposedly portrayed in the painting, died from a laudanum overdose only two years after the 1860 watercolour, and she would have seen and met her own image countless times in the many portraits Rossetti obsessively drew and painted of her. In a poem first composed in 1869, entitled The Portrait, he writes elegiacally and refers to a strange reflection:

This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.