Monday, January 2, 2012

Christina Rossetti's Eyes

Midwinter-blogging, essay 9 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti posed as Mary:  “The Girlhood of
Mary Virgin,” 1849, oil on canvas by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  From the collection
of the Tate Britain, London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christina Rossetti's Eyes

Using minimalist strokes in her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti paints a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary is a maiden, she is transported by bliss, she feeds her baby, and she worships with a kiss.

Christina Rossetti as Mary again:
“Ecce Ancilla Domini!,” 1850,
oil on canvas by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
From the collection of the
Tate Britain, London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christina Rossetti’s brother, the great Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had earlier depicted Mary as a character in two of his first paintings, Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!.  His model for Mary was his sister Christina, aged 18 when posing for Girlhood of Mary Virgin and 20 for Ecce Ancilla Domini.  The first painting received some acclaim when first exhibited;  the second was harshly criticized in very public forums.  During Christina’s life, both paintings were well known and the subject of growing praise.  They remain classics of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

How does it feel to be the face of Mary?  Especially for a person as devout as Christina Rossetti?

“When a young girl, at the time that she sat for the virgin in the picture now in the National Gallery, she (Christina Rossetti) was, as both her mother and Gabriel
have told me, really lovely, with an
extraordinary expression of pensive sweetness.”
          Mr. Watts-Dunton
          The Athenaeum
          January 5, 1895

Even though a beauty of personality comes through in many of the poems, it’s hard to find that pensive sweetness in later drawings and photographs of Rossetti.  You can see that it’s the same person who posed for the paintings but there’s a hardness to her that can intimidate even now.  The mystical beauty captured in the paintings is absent.

Now let me add one more painting to the mix now…

“The Light of the World,” 1851,
by William Holman Hunt.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
We sing Rossetti’s lyrics to “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down at Christmas” at our church, but there’s another very notable link to Rossetti.  In one of the church hallways, there’s a print on the wall of one of the world’s most famous paintings, William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World.  It has been reproduced millions of times—our church is one of thousands that displays it.  In the picture, Jesus stands outside the door and knocks.

Christina Rossetti was one of Hunt’s models for the face of Jesus.  In an 1898 letter to Edward Clodd, Hunt remembered: 

“As I had to have some living being for the colour of the flesh with growth of eyebrows and eyelashes, the solemn expression, when the face was quiescent, of Miss Rossetti promised to help me with some shade of earnestness I aimed at getting…” *

Other models also contributed to Hunt’s vision, but it’s generally believed that his painting of Christ’s eyes was largely inspired by Rossetti.  They may be her eyes.

Detail of "The Light
of the World."
Mary, Jesus, Christina—virgins all.  At the time she was posing, Christina would not have anticipated that she herself would remain a maiden all her life.  She did know she was going to be a poet though, and she was confident that she had the talent to succeed.  Pause to notice Jesus’ eyes the next time you pass a reproduction of The Light of the World.  They are reverent, sensitive, and unyielding—the eyes of a smart young poet perhaps?

* Accurate transcription:  Although Mr. Hunt s grammar is a bit dodgy, his main points are understandable.

An older Christina Rossetti: Christina and Her Mother," 1877, chalk
drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  From the National Portrait Gallery,
London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Music Room

The Indigo Girls sing “In the Bleak Midwinter”…

Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

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