Dante Gabriel Rossetti was greatly interested in the Christian doctrine of typology as a possible means of expressing within a single image or scene graspable by human experience a truth that transcends direct experience. According to typological interpretations, many Biblical stories are prefigurations of Christ, his crucifixion, and his second coming. Therefore, the event itself depicted in the story is not an isolated event, but contains within it the whole story of Christian salvation. Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite Brothers John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt utilized typology by depicting a single instant of Christ's life (such as an ordinary evening prayer in Hunt's The Shadow of Death) in such a way that in prefigures the essential moments in Christianity. The Shadow of Death conveys a deep religious sentiment, too great to be experienced directly, through rather ordinary physical objects. Rossetti saw that typology could thus be used to attribute spiritual significance to commonplace moments, from which the attentive and artistic observer could grasp it.
In "Ave" Rossetti experiments with the typological paradigm using standard religious figures. He suggests that Mary could have had access to deep spiritual meanings, and to knowledge of future events, through her attention to the everyday life of the young Jesus. For example, he asks, "Eating with Him the Passover, / Didst thou discern confusedly / that holier sacrament, when He, / The bitter cup about to quaff,/ Should break the bread and eat thereof?" (39-43) suggesting this common occurrence as containing within it the far richer experience of the Last Supper. Significantly, Rossetti does not seek these connections in major Biblical examples, but instead focuses on determining how "Work and play, / Things common to the course of day, / Awed thee with meanings unfulfill'd;" (50-52). If his attempt is successful, Rossetti has shown a way in which everyday life, human experience rooted in materiality, is infused with spiritual meaning; that is, with eternal, universal truth that cannot be described or comprehended in itself, but which can be glimpsed through its representation in these moments.
However, because in "Ave" all of these moments point toward one other single, significant moment (the death of Christ) that Rossetti does not want at the center of his world, he must use typology in a rather different way. George Landow has argued that in order to use typology for his own purposes, Rossetti removes all of the content from typology, leaving only two formal patterns, that of prefiguration, and that of eternity. (source). In Biblical typology, for example, each event can be seen as a prefiguration of a later, more significant event, and it can also be seen in relation to a spiritual force (God and his divine will) independent of the historical narrative, and of all temporal sequence. Without God, Rossetti sees the individual moment in relation to an abstract notion of eternity, or, in our terms, spirit.
In "The Burden of Nineveh" Rossetti uses not a moment but a physical object as the point of connection to spirit. The "winged beast" (10) discovered in an archeological dig becomes the symbol, or the distilled essence, of the ancient civilization to its observers in London. The statue has a three-fold significance; it stands for the essential characteristics of the civilization it represents, it connects one civilization to another, predicting a common fate, and it provides a glimpse into the nature of all civilization, independent of history. The first significance is obvious; Rossetti explicitly claims that "within I knew the cry lay bound / of the dumb soul of Nineveh," (160) for instance. The second significance is that the statue, unchanging through the course of history, reminds the observer not only of the death of Nineveh but also of the inevitability of change and death for all civilizations; the observer imagines that this same statue will one day be a symbol of London's destruction, "a relic now / of London, not of Nineveh!" (180). More importantly than this direct prefiguration, however, is the fact that the statue gestures toward some spirit that does not change with the course of history; that the same object can have the same meaning for two societies which consider themselves to be incomparably different implies an essential unity of spirit underlying the appearances of matter. This spirit, this guiding principle of mankind, is one possible substitute Rossetti finds for God, and which can be seen in glimpses through careful meditation upon everyday occurrences.
The Rossettis and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- Christina Rossetti and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- D. G. Rossetti's celebration of the unity of matter and spirit
- D. G. Rossetti's Poetry of Nonstatement
Last modified 12 March 2007