A young woman dressed in a habit stands with her back to a brick wall, presumably within the confines of a convent, in Charles Allston Collins' Convent Thoughts (1851). Her left hand holds her place in an illustrated prayer book that she has apparently lost interest in for the moment, judging from the fact that it hangs at her side. Interestingly, the composition of the prayer book's religious illustration, distinctly visible to the viewer, approximately parallels that of the painting. A border of flowers surrounds a centered image of Christ on the cross. Bright blue sky fills the upper portion of the illustration, directly above a brown and green area. Convent Thoughts' subject stands at the center of the canvas between two lush clumps of flowers. This manner of floral framing continues on the painting's frame, on which floral ornamentation encloses the scene in an analogous fashion to the floral trim in the prayer book. The green foliage behind the woman allows the viewer to see only the uppermost part of the brown brick wall; the top of the painting contains a blue sky the same color as the sky in the Christ illustration.
1. What might Collins have intended by drawing a connection between the scene of the woman and the scene of Christ on the cross? The woman does not superficially seem to be a martyr, so what else could Collins' pairing of scenes suggest about her? Might the profusion of nature around her, and her clear interest in it and disinterest at this point in her prayer book, suggest something about the power of nature to be spiritually moving?
2.The numerous flowers in the painting seem to have great significance to the woman, since she has evidently interrupted her religious reading to contemplate a particular flower, held in her right hand and toward which she inclines her head. The depiction of light by means of golden yellow paint on the stalks of the flowers accords with Ruskin's ideas about color, whereas the relatively homogenous blue of the sky does not. although the still water of the foreground reflects the nun's habit with mirror-like detail, the water lacks any sign of a ripple and does not hint at the perpetual flux of nature that Ruskin describes.
3. Since many flowers hold religious significance (such as the lily in relation to the Virgin), we should note the profusion of lilies and water lilies in this painting and ask what might they and the other flowers signify. Has Millais taken them taken out of their usual contexts in more traditional religious paintings? Might Collins be making a connection to Annunciation scenes, such as Rossetti's, in which the Virgin is often depicted with lilies and interrupted in her religious reading?
Last modified 14 September 2004