The phrase, "angel in the house" became a well-known description for the expected role of a woman in the Victorian period. Though modern readers and critics often rightfully question just how pervasive the domestic angel concept was in Victorian England, there is no doubt that the angelic view of women played an important role in literature and art. In fact, art critics of the day required the formation of a new genre in painting: "domestic pictures." In these paintings, wives support and soothe their husbands, or else, watch over and educate her children. She has become an earthly Madonna of everyday life -- a saint of the hearth.
Even depictions of Mary herself, brought the spiritual unearthliness down to a domestic, or human, form. Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, shows a young woman learning the task of embroidery. David Sonstroem emphasizes her mundane nature, saying that she is "a real girl of flesh and blood... nothing about her person... suggests superhumanity." Indeed, instead of a sense of awe at the Virgin's perfection, viewers feel "more inclined to sympathize or reassure, for she seems very lonely as she faces the symbols of her future task." If any sense of religious admiration for this version of Mary arises, it is not because of her divinity but because of her strong will to quell her fears.
Rossetti paints a similar Mary-type in Ecce Ancilla Domini, also known as The Annunciation. Mary, just awakened by the angel Gabriel, huddles on her bed. She appears "entirely girlish and human -- not impassive, splendid, and enthroned as she has often been depicted elsewhere." Though fearful, the human Mary manages to maintain self-control again. Very little about the scene, in fact, suggests the presence of God's power. The angel, minus the usual tell-tale wings, appears just as human and solid as the plain Mary. Though this could not be interpreted as a domestic scene, the painting evokes more the feeling of everyday plausibility than previous conventional depictions of the Virgin.
Last modified 1996