Beata Beatrix

Commonly read as a memorial to Dante Gabriel Rossetti's dead wife Elizabeth Siddal, Beata Beatrix (1870) takes as its subject Dante's beloved Beatrice, imagined in the autobiographical text of Vita Nuova. The picture, which represents the new direction Rossetti's work would take in the last twenty years of his life, embodies the first of the subsequent series of oil paintings that worshipped female beauty. However, more than a tribute to the power of beautiful women, Rossetti's depiction of Beatrice fuses the quotidian and the supernatural, and it does so in a way that instills the image with a powerful virtuosity and spirituality perhaps exceeding that of other Pre-Raphaelite femme fatales.

Rosetti portrays a trancelike Beatrice presumably in the act of internalized spiritual focus, with her closed eyes prefiguring her future death and heavenly ascendance. The mystical bird bathed in holy light that has alighted on Beatrice's arm recalls the iconic dove used to represent the Holy Spirit. The poppy carried in the bird's beak represents death as well as peace and chastity. A sundial appears to the right of Beatrice's face, and the dial casts its shadow on the hour of nine, a number that Dante connects mystically with Beatrice and her death in numerous ways throughout Vita Nuova. The golden light emanating from Beatrice envelopes the sundial, compositionally framing her face between her hair and the shape of the sundial. The background provides us with a view of the river Arno, its bridge, with the distant silhouette of the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo of Florence, where Dante and Beatrice both lived until her death in June 1290. To the viewer's right, the figure of Dante stands in front of a well, representing Beatrice's impending rebirth and also his own rebirth as a poet when Beatrice becomes his muse. Dante's figure gazes intently at the figure of Love, who wears a brilliant red dress and who holds a book, presumably the Vita Nuova. Love holds the flaming heart that, in Dante's first dream of Beatrice, Love fed to Beatrice before sorrowfully carrying her with him to Heaven. Rosetti echoes this visionary event by showing Love seemingly beckoning to Dante's figure to follow him off the left side of the picture, perhaps heavenwards.

Stephens said of Beatrice's figure that "She is herself a vision while . . . the heavenly visions of the New Life are revealed to the eyes of her spirit" ( Rossetti Archive source). Rossetti's depiction of Beatrice exists on multiple visionary and realistic levels, as the picture, which represents Rossetti's imagined vision of Beatrice conjured from Dante's text, shows Beatrice in the visionary act prefiguring not only her own death but also the death of Rossetti's wife Elizabeth.

Questions

1. Rossetti's The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice shows Dante in the act of drawing an angel while thinking of Beatrice, a scene taken from Chapter 33 of the Vita Nuova. How can we relate the action taking place in this image to Beata Beatrix? How does Rossetti use these two images to associate his own work with Dante's?

2. Can we read the background details and cityscape in this picture as autobiographical for Rossetti as much as we understand them to represent Florence? What (if any) elements in the picture can we recognize as not autobiographical?

3. Dante made six reproductions of this picture, each one different from the others. The Rosetti Archive notes that Rossetti painted the background details of the replica done for William Graham with much more precision, lending it greater realism, and that the face of Beatrice in the Graham reproduction loses some of its resemblance to Rosetti's wife, who sat for Beatrice in the original. What other differences can we find between the two images? What might account for the changes that took place when Rossetti found himself forced to rethink the image?

4. Even though Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix in oil, the image retains a chalky, less precise surface appearance akin to his earlier watercolors of the 1850s and uses subdued but contrasting colors rather than clear outlines to delineate objects and spaces. How does this departure from realistic portrayal correspond to the meaning of the image? Similarly, how do Rosetti's use of light and the lack of perspective in the organization of foreground and background dramatize the supernatural or spiritual quality of the work?

Related Materials


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti's paintings Discussion questions for Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Last modified 8 October 2004