Dante Gabriel Rossetti based Beata Beatrix, a deeply moving and ominous painting, on Dante's Beatrice character, but he also made it a memorial to his dead wife Elizabeth. The artist depicts a seated woman in front of a low wall. Lit from behind, her flowing hair glows like a halo while her face and body remain mostly in shadow. The figure would seem like a typical contemplative woman, except for some uncanny details. Though her face is turned upwards, Beatrice's eyes are closed. Her lips have parted and her hands have fallen slack in her lap. She looks hypnotized, almost as though her mind has left her body. According to Christopher Wood, a bird symbolizing death is about to drop a poppy into the woman's lap. Both the flower and its carrier seem to glow with a supernatural light that highlights the portentous significance of these symbols.In the background, two indistinct figures stand in front of hazy trees and structures. The one to the left represents Love, and the one on the right is Dante (Wood).
In Helen of Troy, which Rossetti painted around the same time as Beata Beatrix, the flames framing Helen provide a vision of the future. Considering the closed eyes of Beatrice and the fact that the picture plane of Beata Beatrix, is distinctly divided by a brick wall behind her, it seems the nebulous background images of this composition might represent a similar vision or dream.
Beata Beatrix represents a technical turning point in Rossetti's career; it is one of the artist's first large-scale oils. In what ways has Rossetti taken advantage of this new medium? In what ways does the painting resemble earlier watercolors?
Some elements of the painting, such as the sundial, Beatrice's hands, and the poppy, are articulated clearly. Others, such as the figures and structures in the background, are left blurry and vague. Why might the artist have chosen to obscure much of his composition?
I understand this to be a secular painting. What is the significance of the halo over the bird's head?
Perhaps Rossetti's Helen and Beatrice exemplify a new figure to replace the traditional contemplative woman. Let us call them visionary women instead. Do these female figures have more power than their earlier counterparts? Do they seem sinister, threatening?
Last modified 9 October 2006