The Victorian Era was a time of distinct religious transition. The emergence of Darwinism as a theory and the predominence of scientific thought tended to lead the masses away from churches and ceremony towards a more secular way of existing. This change was reflected in diverse ways in the art of the time, as many traditional motifs in the Christian narrative were newly explored in naturalistic and realistic ways, deliberately meant to unite the holy with the mundane — a thing as yet unheard of and initially quite offensive to the traditionalists of the time. One of the interesting ways in which this manifested was the exploration of sexuality within a religious context.
D.G. Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domine depicts the moment of annunciation between the Angel Gabriel and the virgin Mary. Traditionally, this scene is appropriately fantastical, with a clearly heavenly angel delivering solemn news to a devoutly obediant Mary. A good example of the typical scene is Fra Angelico's Annunciation
This work was admired by the PRB, as it is a Pre — Raphaelite piece that dealt with a favored subject matter. It exercised truth in its simplicity, providing a biblically accurate depiction of that sacred moment. However, admired though it may be, the trend was to take scenes such as this one and humanize them, bring them to a more realistic place. One way of doing that is Rossetti's incorperation of sexual undertones.
Many elements within this piece contribute to the overall humanized effect. The Virgin and the Angel retain their halos and are clothed in white, while he presents her with the lily — all of these are symbols of purity and innocence. Yet Rossetti's Virgin is a shrinking, scared young girl, literally backed into a corner by the symbols surrounding her. She seems more intimidated by Gabriel than reassured, which is honestly a more plausible reaction than the serenity of Fra Angelico's Mary. Gabriel is depicted here much more as a man than a heavenly messenger. He lacks the wings which should immediately classify him as such, and he is robed in garments that expose a muscled, masculine frame. The fire around his feet seemingly serves to compensate for this by reminding the viewer of his divinity, however an alternative reading can also plausibly interpret fire as a symbol for passion, along with the bright red of Mary's embroidery. This can be seen as a harbinger for Christ — passion both begins and ends his life. It's interesting, because if one removed the fire and the haloes (two small elements) one would be left simply with a young man bringing flowers to a young girl.
1. How does Rossetti's interpretation of Mary fit with the common Pre Raphaelite depictions of women, versus the typical Holy Mother?
2. Does the clausterphobic composition of the painting contribute to or distract from its emotional impact and message? How?
3. Compare this painting with Christina Rossetti's poem "The Convent Threshold.". The implication within the poem is that a nun (virgin) is talking to her love, who seems to be some manifestation of Christ or God (since, in theory, those of the religious order are effectively wed to God). It contains similar symbols (the lily, fire) and heavily intertwines love and religion.
I turn from you my cheeks and eyes,
My hair which you shall see no more — —
Alas for joy that went before,
For joy that dies, for love that dies.
Only my lips still turn to you,
My livid lips that cry, Repent.
O weary life, O weary Lent,
O weary time whose stars are few. How shall I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of heaven alone
If Saints and Angels spoke of love
Should I not answer from my throne.
4. Knowing that D.G. Rossetti was predisposed to typological symbolism, how does that emerge in this painting
What is prefigured, what symbols emerge, etc.
Last modified 13 February 2008