Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) is replete with Christian symbols and iconography. Rossetti's painting in many ways seems to anticipate Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) and the PRB's enthusiastic embrace of what they consider to be a new application of Christian typology. The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is anchored by Mary and her mother — each sporting a halo — doing needlework on the right side of the scene. They are dressed in relatively drab colors, though, and their physical and facial demeanors convey few emotions or signs of life.
The scene is visually dominated not by the main characters but instead by the religious symbols that fill the space around the main characters. The bright red shroud suggests Jesus' future shroud —and perhaps the blood that will be spilled sacrifice. It drapes conspicuously under a cross-shaped trellis. The Holy Spirit perches above in haloed-dove form, and as Rossetti explains in his accompanying verses, "The seven-thorn'd brier and palm seven-leaved Are here great sorrow and her great reward." The poem makes no mention of the red-winged angel watering the lily of innocence (which rests on the book-pile of knowledge), but her rather odd stare raises questions about either the artist's intention or his ability. The symbolic elements and the two main characters occupy different areas of the canvas and do not seem to interact in a way that could pull the painting together as a single scene.
1. The pile of books, central to the representation of Mary's personal traits and knowledge, seems to be a blatant anachronism, or at least an oddity for even a well-off household in Mary's time. Is the inclusion of the pile of books a deliberate act of symbolism that is simply exempt from the historical context of Mary's life?
2. What is the function —artistic or semiotic — of the black curtain behind Mary and her mother?
3. Is The Girlhood of Mary Virgin a prototype of the PRB's style of integrated symbolism or an example of the isolated and stand-alone symbols that they very much wanted to avoid?
4. Rossetti's and Millais's paintings present similar themes and symbols in rather different ways. Does the viewing audience come away from Millais's painting with a different understanding, interpretation or appreciation of the embedded symbols than it does from Rossetti's more overt symbols?
Last modified 8 February 2009