Eight men and women from the Bible. Unless otherwise noted all c 1900, Tempera on reps, and signed lower right: "JMEDeM." "JM" always ligated. Provenance: bought as Lot 286, Holloways, 10th July, 2012. Click on images to enlarge them.

Left to right: (a) Deborah. 384.5 x 70 cm (151 3/8 x 27 1/2 inches). (b) Abraham. 384.5 x 70 cm (151 3/8 x 27 1/2 inches). (c) David. 382 x 68.5 cm (150 3/8 x 27 inches). (d) Dorcas. 368 x 69 cm (144 7/8 x 27 1/8 inches). Signed lower right: "JMeDeM." (e) Isaiah. 377.5 x 69 cm (148 5/8 x 27 3/16 inches). (f) Mary of Bethany. 382 x 68 cm (150 3/8 x 26 3/4 inches). (g) Nicodemus, . 360 x 66 cm (141 3/4 x 26 inches). (h) Ruth, 377 x 71 cm (148 1/2 x 28 inches). Signed lower right:

Commentary by Paul Crowther

Four of the wall hangings feature in the Exhibition. The only thing known about their provenance (beyond the point of purchase) is that they may have been left in the cellar of an English church for many years. The signatures on each work appear to be a combination of two monograms based on the initials "J" and "M," followed by the initials "eDeM." In four out of the eight works, the "D" in the sequence of initials is capitalized—to suggest "De M." This indicates that Evelyn De Morgan (born Pickering) was involved in the work. However, it is clear that another artist is, also. As well as the J/I M monogram, the lettering in the title of the works has two different styles—one artist rendering "I" in the form of a "J"; and the other following a more conventional format.

These wall hangings have little in common with De Morgan's often rather florid approach to colour, texture, and tonality. However, they have significantly faded, and involve the use of tempera and reps. The tempera technique does not allow the building up of layers of glaze, and thence excludes the intense colours and complex tonal effects of oil painting. Reps and linen as hanging materials also produce visual effects that might be expected to differ from De Morgan's usual canvas based ones.

There does not appear to be any obvious narrative link between the wall hangings, over and above their equal gender division. Five of the images are of Old Testament figures, and the others are taken from the New Testament. However, one thing they do have in common are expressions and gestures that suggest spiritual resolve—as though accepting the meaning of divine truth for their own individual lives. That such individual awareness is the group "theme" is supported by the fact that, in each hanging, the only person (or, indeed, creature) represented is the one whom the image is of.

DEBORAH—In the Book of Judges (Judges 4:4), Deborah is described as a prophetess and judge amongst the Israelites, who delivered her judgments beneath a palm tree. She exhorted Barak (head of the Israelite army) to face the army of their enemy Jabin in battle. The Israelites won a great victory. After this, the Israelites were left in peace for forty years. In the wall-hanging, Deborah's left arm is raised. This gesture is derived from the main (female) figure in Burne-Jones's painting Hope (a gesture that is itself probably derived from mirrorreversing the figure of Mercury at the far left of Botticelli's Primavera of 1482). Hope was first created as a watercolour in 1871, but was later realized in a more well-known oil painting of 1896 (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) [see the corresponding stained-glass window here]. It has another similarity to the present work in that both Deborah and Hope are carrying a rod. However, in Hope's case, the rod is actually a single branch with flowers, nestled in a relaxed way between her right arm and torso; Deborah's rod, in contrast, appears to be a symbol of authority, and is brandished assertively with a fierce grip. It is very likely meant to connote both her activity as a judge, and her defiance of the forces of Jabin.

ABRAHAM is the first of the three Patriarchs of Israel. Their story is told in chapters 11–25 of the Book of Genesis. He overcame many hurdles to fulfil a destiny whose ramifications shape many other events in the Bible. In this respect, it is significant that the hanging represents Abraham as moving down steps towards the viewer, in symbolic terms, inaugurating events that will bring God's message to us. His gestures suggest a decision that has been made and which is now to be explained. A turbaned Abraham was represented by a number of artists including Guercino in his Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael of 1657 (now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), and Rembrandt in his etching of Abraham and Isaac (1645) There is some affinity between the Patriarch's gestures in the wall-hanging and those he makes in both the aforementioned works. The wall-hanging, in other words, is part of an established minor tradition vis-à-vis how Abraham should be represented.

ISAIAH—is another of the most famous figures from the Bible. His prophesies are the subject of an entire Book in the Old Testament, addressing the fate of the Kingdom of Judah in relation to its deeds and enemies, and foretelling the coming of Christ. In the present work, the figure of Isaiah is derived directly from Michelangelo's representation of him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The basic disposition of limbs and torso is the same, and the same broad colour scheme of pinkish red and light blue is used for his robes. However, in the wall hanging the figure is more erect, and the drapery very differently disposed (with the red and light blue colours assigned to different areas of the robes). The most significant contrast, however, is that the wall hanging does not contain the two small putti whispering in the right ear of Michelangelo's Isaiah. This renders Isaiah's prophetic insight more personal—as a gift that the prophet takes responsibility for, and acts upon.

RUTH—Ruth was from Moab. She married into an Israelite family who had taken residence there in time of famine. When the male family members died, the other daughter-in-law decided to remain in Moab, but Ruth chose to go with their mother—Naomi—back to Bethlehem. In the Old Testament Book of Ruth she says "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (Ruth 1:16-17, King James English translation). In Israel, whilst gleaning in the fields (picking up strands of corn left after the harvest) she met Boaz. They married, and from their issue came the great King David, and, eventually, Joseph, the father of Jesus. In the wall hanging, Ruth is carrying a bundle of corn gleanings, and appears to be going about her work meekly and patiently, with the utmost fidelity to her chosen, religiously important path. The rather plain background to the work reinforces our sense of the purity of her commitment. Interestingly, the disposition of her head and right shoulder, and her feet, suggest that Ruth's figure may be a loose variation on that of Venus (the central figure) in Botticelli's Primavera.

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.

Bibliography

Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 28.


Last modified 8 December 2014