Throughout part of my argument that one might

the years literature and art have always had a very close relationship however,
deeper than this, is the link between poetry and painting. To discuss the
reasons why one might value a ‘literary painting’ over other kinds of
paintings, I will talk about the link between painting and poetry, often
labelled as the “Sister arts”.  Historically
it has been suggested that without poetry there wouldn’t be painting. John
Ruskin’s ‘humanistic theory of
painting emphasized that painting had to depend upon poetry, as model and
source, for subject, content, and purpose’1,
allowing the artist to create a visual to words.


The Latin
principle of Ut pictora poesis which directly
translates to “As is painting, so is poetry”, serves to explain the
relationship between painting and poetry. It is said that originally Horace’s
maxim of ut pictora poesis referred
to how, like poetry, some paintings can please the viewer from a distance, in
contrast to others which require the viewer to conduct a close scrutiny of the
painting in order to experience, furthermore appreciate the maximum viewing
For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of their work was inspired by literary sources
citing works such as, medieval folkore, Arthurian legends and the bible as
stimuli. An example of this is, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849)3.
An oil on canvas piece that I will
be reading later in the essay, as part of my argument that one might value a
‘literary painting’, over other kinds of paintings. 4

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addition to their repeated use of literary sources, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and
William Holman Hunt compiled a list of writers whom they believed to be
‘Immortals’ to their cause. Their declaration went as such:

the undersigned, declare that the following List of Immortals constitutes the
whole of our Creed, and that there exists no other Immortality than what is
centred in their names: Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer,
Hogarth, Poe, Goethe, Barrett-Browning, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats,

doctrine followed by the members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood underlines
their ideologies that were also shared by the late Victorian critic John
Ruskin; they believed that poetry is “the highest art” and painting is only
likened to it. Ruskin also continued to argue throughout the many volumes of
his Modern Painters books that poetry
and painting can, together, bring out the best qualities in one another.


The pre-Raphaelite
brotherhood is renowned for their artistic links to literary sources, and Dante
Gabriel Rossetti perfectly encapsulates the beautiful relationship between
poetry and art. He was known to have practiced both poetry and art himself, but
despite the act of juggling the two causing him great stress, he amalgamated the
two with great excellency and proficiency which is shown in his many “double
works”, including The Girlhood of Mary
Virgin and The Blessed Damozel (with


One of his
first major works, twenty-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin which was
completed in 1849; portrays a young virgin Mary and her parents St. Anne and
St. Joachim. The medium of this piece is oil on canvas, and it has been painted
in a very relaxed pre-Raphaelite style. Not only was this Rossetti’s first
major oil painting, submitted to the free exhibition in London’s Hyde park but,
it was the first painting exhibited to the public to hold the P.R.B signature
in the bottom left-hand corner, introducing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a
movement that would dominate the British art scene for decades.


The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, although it does not give us the
distinct realism we often associate with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, includes
the bold and vibrant colours that are commonly included in the works of the
P.R.B. The Royal Academy worshipped the work of Raphael, however the strict
artistic conventions that came from following Raphael’s work were opposed by
the Brotherhood. Traditionally religious art is painted in an apex style, with
Christ being at the top of the painting; the most eye catching. As we see in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, there is no
clear apex figure within the painting. Instead we have a somewhat simple
painting that is riddled with Christian Catholic symbolism that the viewer must
uncover with the aid of Rossetti’s two sonnets. It is important to add however
that the brotherhood did not reject the work of Raphael, or any other classical
art. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was known for breaking from tradition, and
Rossetti does so here by representing Mary engaged in embroidery under the
guidance of her mother, when typically, in renaissance art she is traditionally
depicted with a book in her lap being taught how to read with the leadership of
her mother St. Anne.


I imagine
the painting of The Girlhood of Mary
Virgin was a very personal one. Not only was it his first major painting to
be exhibited, he also used his mother to model St. Anne and his sister
Christina Rossetti as the model for the young Mary. Rossetti defies the
conventional norms again, by painting his sister who models for Mary with
auburn hair. Knowing the Rossetti’s are of Italian descent, the viewer would
presume she would have brunette hair, which would coincide with the traditional
paintings of Mary. By doing this however, he continues to add his own touch to
his religious painting which are often very strict and by the book. Instead he paints
a radical alternative to the commonly painted sacred subject and characters.


The first
thing we see in the painting is the young Virgin Mary working on some
embroidery, with the guidance of her mother St Anne. Mary appears to be sewing
a Lily, which is synonymous with her untainted beauty, youthfulness and
innocence. The young Mary’s subject for her embroidery, a Lily, is well chosen
by Rossetti as one of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhoods key principles was to ‘fidelity
to nature’.  Furthermore, by having Mary
engaged in embroidery, this emphasizes her patience. In the painting we can see
that her gaze is elsewhere instead of looking down at her needlework,
suggesting her mind is not one hundred percent on the task at hand. It is
assumed from the sonnets that partner the painting, that Mary is deep in
spiritual thought. In the background we can see her father St. Joachim tending
to the vines, and there are also some vines wrapped around a cross which
foreshadows Christs’ death on the cross. Therefore, by having St. Joachim
performing an action with the vines, Rossetti is referring to the coming of
Christ who his daughter Mary will carry furthermore, in John 15;1 Christ calls
himself the “True Vine”.


makes use of traditional religious Christian iconography to fill the space
around the main characters for example, the haloed-dove outside representing
the holy spirit, the vibrant red of the fabric Mary is sewing on, and the
shroud placed on the balcony almost drowns out the other colours with its vivid
bold red. The use of the red is ironic because the intense red signifies the
blood that Jesus will shed when he is tied to the cross, this is again alluded
to with the cross wrapped in vines. In the background outside, behind St
Joachim is the sea of Galilee and a bright blue sky. The colour blue in Christian
religious paintings is often associated with heaven and faith. Despite the bold
colours present, I believe the painting to have a somewhat sombre feel and tone
to it with very muted shades however I feel this was done purposely by Rossetti
to emphasise the pop of colour from the reds of the fabric and Angel wings. Such
a bright colour was very uncommon in Victorian-era art, and so this disregard
of the societal norms further links Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite
brotherhood to art that is before their time and before the Victorian era.
Rossetti paints back to art of the late medieval and renaissance era, which was
very uncommon and arguably unpopular in Victorian England at the time. Art historian
Jason Rosenfield identifies how Rossetti “draws on early Renaissance paintings
from Northern Europe and Italy, blended with a comprehensive religious
symbolism expressed in a profusion of clearly observed details and natural
The books beside the child-angel represent the theological virtues and three of
the cardinal virtues these include – gold for Charity, blue for Faith, green
for Hope, buff for Prudence, white for Temperance and brown for fortitude9.
It is known there are four cardinal virtues, and one, justice, has been


to the painting were two sonnets written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, titled Marys Girlhood (For a picture), that
serve as a guide and explain the religious iconography riddled throughout the
painting. The first sonnet begins “This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect/ God’s
this highlights that we, the viewer, already know the future that is destined
for Mary as she is going to bear Christ the Saviour however, it also emphasizes
that her role was chosen in a time before her existence, despite her being
unaware of her fate. Rossetti uses the first part of the two sonnets to set the
scene of her girlhood however, he ends it with her annunciation, which he also
paints. The moment where “she woke in her white bed, and had no fear”12
is seen visualised in Rossetti’s Ecce
Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)13,
in which he again uses his poet sister Christina Rossetti as a live model
for Mary. In this painting we see repeated iconography, such as the completed embroidery
Mary had been working on in The Girlhood
of Mary Virgin. The Angel Gabriel is presenting Mary with a white lily,
again signifying her purity and innocence, furthermore, in the background the
presence of the Holy Spirit is again alluded to with the symbol of the white


The second
sonnet begins very flatly with “These are the symbols”, and guides the reader
through the symbolic features within the painting. It is suggested that
Rossetti wrote the second sonnet after the completion of the painting, allowing
him to exactly describe the symbols present. He goes on to write:

books – whose head

golden Charity, as Paul hath said –

virtues are wherein the soul is rich.

on them the lily standeth, which

Innocence, being interpreted.14

Where one
might have been struggling to read and interpret the painting, the accompanying
sonnet will clarify to the viewer the meanings of the religious iconography. However,
Rossetti doesn’t tell the reader in a rigid way, the verbal imagery and the relaxed
iambic pentameter rhyme scheme of the sonnet match that of the painting.15
Even though the second sonnet serves to enhance the viewing experience of the
painting, it is not reliant on the painting and can be read as its own work of
art. Both of the sonnets serve to clarify what the viewer already knows, or
what they may be struggling to understand within the painting. Where the second
sonnet is very explanatory in the symbolism present, the first sonnet augments
this together by giving us the meaning on the surface and providing deeper
insight into what is going on. Within the poems clues are given about the
character of Mary, by describing her as being “Faithful and hopeful; wise in
charity;– Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect”16,
with this information we can analyse the painting even further. To illustrate
this, the facial expression of Mary is somewhat perplexing however, with the
information provided in the poem, the viewer can confidently deduce Mary’s
plain expression as being that of seriousness and gravity.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) don’t
need the sonnets to be understood, nor do the sonnets rely on the paintings for
context however, the relationship Dante Gabriel Rossetti has formed between the
two is a perfect example of Ut Pictora Poesis.
The relationship between the poems and the paintings challenge the viewer
to interact with them as a set, as well as individual items. Although, in this particular case the
subtitle in the sonnets title of “For a picture” indicates that Rossetti
believes primary importance to be on the pictures, further allowing the sonnets
to be a work of art in their own right.


The scene
Dante Gabriel Rossetti has created in The
Girlhood of Mary Virgin is one that is not recorded in the Bible. Rossetti
has conceived this idea using the traditional parts that are common knowledge
of the annunciation theme, or in this particular scene, the pre-annunciation
Literary paintings allow artists to make connections outside of their one
single canvas, and for a group like the pre-Raphaelites this increased their
complexity, significance and gave them prominence within the literary circles. Rossetti
has added colour and shape to a theme that previously existed only through words,
he has given these words texture and details such a face and hair etc. This is
a painting that demands to be scrutinised so that full viewing pleasure can be achieved,
the Christian iconography needs to be fully decoded so that the viewer can
understand what is going on within the painting; this is the beauty of literary
paintings. Literary paintings are a pleasure to be understood, and each viewer
has a different viewing experience because they bring their own knowledge and
understanding to the painting. A piece like The
Girlhood of Mary Virgin demands your attention so you can really explore
what is going on. Whilst the sonnets have been written to accompany the
paintings, they too demand to be scrutinised and deciphered in order to be
understood for example, in the second sonnet Rossetti writes “Until the end be
full, the Holy One – Abides without” referring to the dove being the presence
of the Holy Spirit that will always be with Mary.


Finally, I
think a reason why people might enjoy literary paintings over other kinds of
paintings is because the painting is telling you a story about a piece of literature
that you’re already familiar with. Literary paintings allow us to see something
from the point of view of someone that isn’t us or the author; often when we’ve
already got a visual of something in our head, it’s hard to try and reimagine
it in a completely different way. Paintings have their own meanings, and we the
viewer give further meaning to the paintings. Regardless of a literary painting
like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin having
to sonnets to help the viewer better understand the painting, at the end of the
day, we the viewer have the final say of what we believe the painting to mean.18


1 “Chapter
One: Ruskin’s Theories Of The Sister Arts — Ut Pictura Poesis”, Victorianweb.Org, 2018
January 2018.

2 Jean H. Hagstrum, Sister Arts: Tradition Of Literary Pictorialism And English
Poetry From Dryden To Gray, 1st edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

3 “‘The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1848-9 | Tate”, Tate, 2018

13 January 2018.

4 “The
Pre-Raphaelites”, The British Library, 2018

13 January 2018.

5 William
Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism And The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2nd edn (New
York: Macmillan, 1905).

6 “The
Blessed Damozel (With Predella)”, Rossettiarchive.Org, 2018
13 January 2018.

7 “Chapter
One: Ruskin’s Theories Of The Sister Arts — Ut Pictura Poesis”, Victorianweb.Org, 2018
January 2018.

8 Anna
Souter, “The Pre-Raphaelite Movement Movement, Artists And Major
Works”, The Art Story, 2018
January 2018.

9 “‘The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Walker Art Gallery,
Liverpool Museums”, Liverpoolmuseums.Org.Uk, 2018

13 January 2018.

10 “‘The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Walker Art Gallery,
Liverpool Museums”, Liverpoolmuseums.Org.Uk, 2018

13 January 2018.

11 “The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin”, Rossettiarchive.Org, 2018
14 January 2018.

12 “The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin”, Rossettiarchive.Org, 2018
14 January 2018.

13 “‘Ecce
Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-50 |
Tate”, Tate, 2018

13 January 2018.

14 “The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin”, Rossettiarchive.Org, 2018
14 January 2018.

15 “Pre-Raphaelite
Approaches To Ut Pictura Poesis: Sister Arts Or Sibling Rivalry?”, Victorianweb.Org, 2018
13 January 2018.

16 “The
Girlhood Of Mary Virgin”, Rossettiarchive.Org, 2018
14 January 2018.

17 “Mary’s
Girlhood”, Mural.Uv.Es, 2018
13 January 2018.

18 “Mary’s
Girlhood”, Mural.Uv.Es, 2018
13 January 2018.


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