Tennyson here begins his catalogue of historical and mythological figures who embody the high points of human culture with one of the most common subjects of European painting —the Madonna and child. That the poet depicts a painting of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus and not the holy figures themselves appears in two details: they are (1) near a crucifix, a prefiguration of Christ's death, and (2) beneath "branch-work of costly sardonyx." Costly sardonyx and the crucifix are anachronistic symbols not found in the gospels but in Renaissance paintings. Tennyson's aesthete here emphasizes the imaginative and artistic treatments belief as much as the faith itself. Like the late-nineteenth-century Decadents, Tennyson's speaker treats religion as a means of imaginative pleasure and not as a matter of belief.
[Back to the passage in "The Palace of Art"]
Last modified 11 October 2005