IV. Word and Image -- Problems of Interpretation

decorated initial 'H' owever attractive this political interpretation of Striking the Rock might appear, without firmer evidence, such as written commentary by artist, patrons or working-class audience, it can only remain a possibility. This fact tells us something about Victorian typology in general and about its use in the visual arts as well. This particular type of the smitten rock was more popular in Victorian than in earlier religious art, and its increased popularity owed much to the appeal it had for Evangelicals within and without the Church of England. Moreover, in painting as in literature Victorian applications are far more varied -- even downright idiosyncratic -- compared with earlier uses in the visual arts, when it most frequently follows the Pauline interpretation as a type of baptism. The presence of numerous religious parties each with its own doctrinal emphasis accounts for the greater range of applicable meanings that this scene offers during the Victorian period. But, as we have already observed in the case of Durham's work, one of the results of such varied and often peculiarly original applications of types is that, without external evidence, proving how either artist or audience interpreted them is difficult. William Holman Hunt made the interpretation of his major works relatively easy by furnishing his audience with detailed exhibition pamphlets explaining his intentions. He thus sets forth the meaning of The Finding of the Saviour in both a key plate and a book his friend Stephens wrote under his direction. The painter also wrote an interpretation of Early Christians Rescuing A Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1850) for his friend Thomas Combe, who purchased the picture, and he wrote explanations for owners of other works, including The Hireling Shepherd (1851). He also published pamphlets for most of his later major works.

Such juxtapositions of text and image take many forms, and Hunt, who was obviously intrigued by such devices, employs almost every kind of them. In addition to providing epigraphs, key plates, and detailed written explanations of his work, the artist also employed other means of reinforcing the typological significance of his paintings. In The Shadow of Death, for example, the title directs the viewer to the picture's central typological image. In this painting, which is Hunt's recapitulation and reinterpretation of Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents, the adult Christ extends His hands in prayer after a day's labor as a carpenter and thus casts a prefiguring shadow of the Crucifixion upon the workshop wall. Hunt also includes typological and prefigurative texts upon the frames of his paintings, and he frequently includes images of commonplace types, such as the brazen serpent, as well. Borrowing the technique from William Hogarth, he also includes written texts within the picture itself. Thus, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple includes a large circular disk immediately behind the Holy Family, and on this golden disk appear Hebrew and Latin versions of Malachi 3:1: "And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple." Like the types within the picture, this text, which is appropriately inscribed on the entrance to the Temple, points to the meaning of the painting's main action.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, not Hunt, exemplifies another means of placing a typological image within a linguistic context when he creates a poem, a separate and yet conjoined work, to achieve this effect. For example, "The Passover in the Holy Family" (1870), which he wrote for his watercolor with the same title painted for Ruskin in 1856, both guides the viewer through his picture and makes a characteristically Rossettian emphasis upon typology's ability to provide privileged moments. The sonnet opens "Here meet together the prefiguring day/And day prefigured," as Rossetti, like his Pre-Raphaelite brethren, takes an imagined event from the life of Christ and transforms it into a meditative image that contains the entire Gospel scheme of salvation. After the introduction, which thus emphasizes that the picture represents a Rossettian significant moment, his sonnet proceeds by setting forth the details — the types that prefigure Christ's ultimate self-sacrifice. First, Rossetti invokes not just the celebration of the Passover but all the events of the Exodus it celebrates. Christ, who is a second Moses, is assisting His family in the commemoration of the events which serve as types of Himself and His coming actions, so that the picture The Passover in the Holy Family simultaneously commemorates and fulfills an ancient event that functions as a type, represents the literal events of one Passover during the childhood of Jesus, and prefigures Christ's own sacrifice that will enable Him to lead all believers from the Egyptian slavery of sin and death. Thus, after relating the details of the Exodus and its celebration in the Passover ritual, the poet emphasizes that "now" in the time of Jesus, this reenactment of the ancient celebration of deliverance brings together Old Law and New: "The slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay." In ancient times it was the blood of the lamb that kept death away from the Egyptians; Jesus and His family commemorate that event in their celebration of the holiday; later, after the passion and death of Christ it will be His blood which will conquer death.

The sestet therefore moves to the actual sacrifice, itself another type of the Crucifixion, as the poet turns our attention from the present to the future:

What shadow of Death the Boy's fair brow subdues Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained By Zachary the Priest?

Just as the blood of the paschal lamb kept the Angel of Death from the houses of the enslaved Jews, so shall the blood of Christ in future years enable man to triumph over death. At this point, Rossetti refers to both type and prophecy when he has John bind the shoes "He deemed himself not worthy to unloose." Like Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents, Rossetti's watercolor includes John the Baptist as a means of pointing toward the future of the boy Saviour. The poem closes with Mary gathering the bitter herbs, which in the Passover ritual symbolize the past sufferings of the enslaved Israelites. Here they also prefigure the suffering of Jesus and his mother, for, again like Millais, Rossetti has created a High Church interpretation of this imagined event.

In addition to setting forth the proper interpretation of individual typological images within his watercolor, Rossetti's sonnet, as we have seen, places a realistically conceived scene within several temporal contexts. Ever since Lessing had pointed out certain basic differences between visual and literary art, artists had accepted that paintings were limited to the depiction of single moments. Consequently, artists strove to capture dramatically climactic moments such as Millais does in Isabella (1849) and Hunt in Rienzi (1849). But typology offers a means of enriching a picture's effect by locating it simultaneously in several different times.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's use of language for such purposes appears with particular clarity in poems he wrote about other artists" paintings, for in these cases he adds the typological dimensions on his own authority. His characteristic fascination with the role of time in the arts thus informs "The Holy Family," a sonnet written for a painting in the National Gallery, London, once thought to be by Michelangelo, Rossetti's sonnet opens with Mary begging her son not to look at the "prophet's page, o son! He knew/ All that thou has to suffer," and his note informs the reader: "In this picture the Virgin Mother is seen withholding from the Child Saviour the prophetic writings in which his sufferings are foretold." Mary, who then withholds the darker portions of her child's fate from Him, inspires Him with prophecies of man's coming salvation:

Still before Eden waves the fiery sword,
Her Tree of Life unransomed: whose sad Tree
Of knowledge yet to growth of Calvary
Must yield its Tempter, -- Hell the earliest dead
Of Earth resign, — and yet, o Son and Lord,
The Seed o" the woman bruise the serpent's head.

Mary, who the poet supposes has a full knowledge of the future, thus draws her son's attention to His great victory over sin and death. These six lines become prophecy as she ranges over all human time from the Fall to the unnamed Crucifixion and Harrowing of Hell, but she always stops short of telling Christ about His sacrifice. The poem ends with a fine use of a commonplace type: Mary, who has avoided telling her son of His impending doom, again leads up to an allusion to it and again refuses to present the entire truth. Repeating God's words in the Garden, Jesus's mother tells Him that "the Seed o' the woman [will] bruise the serpent's head," thus defeating sin and death. What she does not tell him is that the serpent will, in turn, bruise the heel of man — a prophecy usually taken to indicate the Crucifixion .

By providing only the first portion of the commonplace text, Rossetti skillfully reinforces the poignant interpretation he has given the painting. Essentially, he uses the partial statement of Genesis 3:15 much as Browning, Hopkins, and Tennyson employ typological citation in many of their dramatic monologues: to permit the speaker to state more than at first appears. Usually such typological imagery serves to permit the author a way of having the speaker unknowingly convict himself of some flaw, but Rossetti's "The Holy Family" instead uses it as a means of preventing the self-conscious speaker from divulging too much information to one not ready for it. Rossetti, in other words, employs the Tractarian doctrine of reserve as a model for Mary's relation to her son.

Although the original painting for which Rossetti wrote this companion poem contains scrolls that supposedly contain a prophecy, he added the specific types of the tree and bruising the serpent. Since prophetic passages such as those in Isaiah referred to the coming Messiah, Rossetti's poem does not violate the spirit of the painting by employing prefigurative symbolism. By adding additional types and by using them as the means for resolving his poem, Rossetti gives the painting a new meaning. Like Ruskin, who creates works of literature to comment upon paintings, Rossetti creates an essentially new work of verbal art to explain a visual one. Of course, now we have moved from the question of how painters use linguistic texts to define their own images to something quite different: the way language and the poet who uses it can create a new work of art by endowing paintings with meanings they may not originally have possessed.


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Print version published 1980; web version 1998