Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


44 Beata Beatrix c.1864-70

Oil on canvas 86.4 x 66 (34 x 26)
Inscribed with Rossetti's monogram b.l.
Prov: Hon. William Cowper, later Lord Mount-Temple; his widow, by whom presented to the National Gallery 1889
Exh: RA Winter 1883 (293); Manchester 1911 (219); Tate Gallery 1911-12 (1279); Tate Gallery 1948 (21); Tate Gallery 1984 (131, repr.)
Lit: Marillier 1899, no.138, pp.126-8; Ironside and Gere 1948, p.37; Surtees 1971, no.168, pl.238; Surtees 1980, pp.44, 103 n.3

Tate Gallery. Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889

This is a very different type of picture from the 'fleshly' female portraits Rossetti made in the 1860s, for it is a memorial to his wife Lizzie Siddall, who had died on 11 February 1862. In it Rossetti draws parallels between the death of Beatrice and Lizzie, and compares Dante's loss with his own. The title translates as 'Blessed Beatrice' and refers to the Vita Nuova ('The New Life') - Dante's account of his unrequited love and mourning for the young Beatrice Portinari. Rossetti began his translation of this text in 1845, and it appeared in 1864 as part of his volume The Early Italian Poets. The Vita Nuova was a story which had fascinated Rossetti since his youth, but it took on close personal significance with the death of his own beloved. He characterised the picture as a 'poetic work' (Doughty and Wahl 1965-8, II, p.603), and it is filled with symbolic or allegorical references to Beatrice and Lizzie. In the background Dante looks across at the figure of Love, in whose hand a flickering flame around a heart represents the gradual waning of Beatrice's life and temporal love. Dante continues watching until the last moment possible as Beatrice's heart is taken to Purgatory to await judgement. Love is portrayed not as Cupid but as an angel surrounded by an aura, and depicted very much in the manner of Burne-Jones's figures. In the distance, dimly glimpsed as if through a Victorian London fog, is the Ponte Vecchio, a reminder of the setting of the medieval story. The central figure of Beatrice is posed in an attitude of ecstasy. A dove descends to her, an emblem of the Holy Spirit and impending death, but also a reference to one of Rossetti's pet names for Lizzie, 'the Dove'. It is presumably coloured red as the colour of love, as are the robes of the figure of Love in the background. Held in its beak is an opium poppy, a traditional symbol of sleep, dreams and death, but in this context also a reference to the manner of Lizzie's death from an overdose of laudanum. The colours of her dress are significant, for as Rossetti's friend F.G. Stephens pointed out, green and grey are 'the colours of hope and sorrow, as well as of love and life' ('Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti', Portfolio, vol.22, 1891, p.46). Rossetti designed the frame himself, and on it are further references to Dante. At the top, now partly erased, is the date of Beatrice's death 'Jun: Die 9: Anno 1290', while at the bottom is the phrase from Lamentations 1:1 that Dante quoted in the Vita Nuova - 'Quomodo sedet sola civitas' ('how doth the city sit solitary') - a reference to the mourning of Beatrice's death throughout Florence. The roundels represent the sun, moon, earth and stars, referring to the last lines of Dante's Divine Comedy: 'Love which moves the sun and all the stars.'

In a letter to the Hon. Mrs Cowper-Temple in 1871 Rossetti himself gave a detailed account of the picture's subject, and its treatment of Dante:

It must of course be remembered, in looking at the picture that it is not at all intended to represent Death ... but to render it under the resemblance of a trance, in which Beatrice seated at the balcony over-looking the city is suddenly rapt from Earth to Heaven. You will remember how much Dante dwells on the desolation of the city in connection with the incident of her death, & for this reason I have introduced it, as my background, & made the figure of Dante and love passing through the street & gazing ominously at one another, conscious of the event, whilst the bird, a messenger of death, drops a poppy between the hands of Beatrice. She sees through her shut lids, is conscious of a new world, as expressed in the last words of the Vita Nuova 'Quella beata Beatrice che gloriosamente mira nella fascia die colui est per omnia soecula benedictus' ['that blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance who is blessed throughout all ages']
(quoted in Surtees 1971, no.168)
Swinburne, one of the few among the Rossetti circle to be close to Lizzie, admired the picture's sensual treatment, and judged it:
perhaps the noblest work of Mr Rossetti's many studies after Dante. The work is wholly symbolic and ideal; a strange bird flown earthward from heaven brings her in its beak a full-blown poppy, the funereal flower of sleep. Her beautiful head lies back, sad and sweet, with fast-shut eyes in a death-like trance that is not death; over it the shadow of death seems to impend, making sombre the splendour of her ample hair and tender faultless features ...
(quoted in Hyder 1972, p.133)
The sundial shows the hour of Beatrice's death, nine o'clock, and Rossetti noted in a letter to Ellen Heaton in 1863:
You probably remember the singular way in which Dante dwells on the number nine in connection with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. He meets her at nine years of age, she dies at nine o'clock on the 9th of June, 1290. All of this is said, and he declares her to have been herself 'a nine', that is the perfect number, or symbol of perfection.
(quoted Surtees, loc. cit.)
The mystical connotations with 'perfection' of the number nine arise from its being the sum of three times three, three being the number of the Trinity. However, it additionally held traditional connections with hell. There were said to be nine rivers there, or as Dante himself described in the Divine Comedy, hell comprised nine circles. Milton wrote of the gates of hell as being 'thrice three fold' with nine folds, nine plates and nine linings (Paradise Lost, II, 645). Rossetti would certainly have known of all these implications, and his inclusion of a reference to nine in Beata Beatrix might, in addition to the connections with the Vita Nuova, indicate some fear in his mind that Lizzie's sin of suicide might have condemned her to the infernal regions. In Dante's Inferno the suicides are leaves on trees which are fed upon by harpies (xiii, 2-108).

The picture has a hazy, unfocused quality, especially around Beatrice's head and in the background, which emphasises its visionary, dream-like, transcendent character, perhaps not unconnected with its references to opium. Wilton (p.28) compares this with Watts's work. Such a surface suggests a membrane through which the parallel, anti-materialist world of the imagination or the ideal can be glimpsed, as if through frosted glass. Grieve has noted similarities with the 'soft focus' photographs Julia Margaret Cameron started making in January 1864, and which Rossetti much admired (Tate Gallery 1984, no.131). However, the photographs of spirit manifestations at seances, whether faked or otherwise, frequently have a similarly diffuse character. During the time Rossetti was working on Beata Beatrix he was deeply involved in spiritualism, trying to make contact with Lizzie, and this experience must have been an influence on the picture (see nos.70, 71).

As Rossetti explained in his letter to Georgiana Cowper-Temple, in the picture Beatrice 'sees through her shut lids, is conscious of a new world'. Thus in her ecstatic state she experiences a direct revelation of God and the afterlife. But Beatrice is frankly depicted in a way that resembles sexual ecstasy. Her facial expression, raised head, straining throat and parted lips are overtly sensual, and Rossetti evidently intends to suggest a connection between the sexual and the divine, between orgasm and revelation. This was a concept that had been proposed by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) in his book Conjugial Love (1768), a text which seems to have influenced Rossetti deeply (see nos.70, 71). Swedenborg proposed that sexual union was in itself a religious experience and one which brought people closer to the experience of God's love. Sexual ecstasy and love on earth, he believed, came closest to that divine love and revelation found in Heaven. Sexual congress echoed the union of two souls in Heaven which he suggested were needed to form a single angel.

Rossetti also seems to be making darker, more complex and deeply psychological connections between sex and death. Such feelings about the eroticism of death, and the sexual dimension of grief, were much later to be explored by Freud. The exhuming of Lizzie's body in 1869, and ensuing reports of her state of preservation, including the continued radiance of her golden hair, which in life had so fascinated Rossetti, can only have made such responses more complicated (see Ashmolean 1991, p.7). So too must Rossetti's apparently successful contact with Lizzie's spirit. It appears that after Lizzie's death, in one sense, his passion for her was revitalised, their differences now forgotten. In his grief, his longing for her included sexual yearning. The picture is composed like an altar-piece, and posed with her hands before her and her lips parted, Lizzie looks as if she is about to receive Communion. This suggests that death, and also sex, are a sacrament. The painting therefore functions on several levels - as a symbolic illustration to Dante, and a comparison of Rossetti's life to Dante's, as a memento mori to Lizzie, and as a summary of Rossetti's beliefs in the sanctity of sex.

As noted above, Beata Beatrix expresses the central duality at the heart of Symbolism between the Decadent and the Ideal (see p.24). Rossetti's representation of the dying Lizzie signifies a fusion of his physical and spiritual love for her, thus proposing that through the transfiguration of death, these two dimensions of earthly human relations will become one. This is an inherently Swedenborgian notion, although in his philosophy true union could only be achieved with the passage through death of both partners, and the pain and longing of the separation until this happened was treated by Rossetti in his poem and painting The Blessed Damozel. Here the Damozel longs for the moment of her earth-bound lover's death, and this, combined with his eroticised, ecstatic treatment of the experience of dying in Beata Beatrix may indicate a corresponding yearning by Rossetti for his own extinction. This reading is not unlikely, for while staying with William Bell Scott at Penkill Castle in autumn 1869, contemplating Lizzie's impending disinterment, Rossetti spoke daily of suicide and came close to throwing himself from a precipice. It was shortly afterwards that Rossetti believed he was visited by Lizzie's soul in the form of a bird (see no.71; Bell Scott 1892, II, pp.112-13).

Rossetti worked on Beata Beatrix over a long period of time. It was actually started in Lizzie's lifetime, but abandoned. Rossetti's assistant Henry Treffry Dunn reported:

The picture might have met with destruction and passed away into oblivion had it not been for Mr. Howell. It was begun and so far as head and hands went completed from Rossetti's wife, but her untimely death so saddened him that he took no further interest in it and for a considerable time it lay in the studio thoroughly uncared for & subject to all sorts of damages. Howell being once in the house discovered it in a very dirty condition and without saying a word to Rossetti took it away and had it relined, bringing it back to him in a most inviteable state to work upon and with Howell's persuasions and entreaties he took fresh heart of grace & completed it.
(quoted in Surtees 1971, no.168)
Howell's desire for Rossetti to take up the picture may well have been conceived as a way of helping him with his grief. Although in life Lizzie had been a recurrent subject for Rossetti's art, after her death she did not figure again until Beata Beatrix. This is partly explained by Rossetti's preference for working from life. After rediscovering the laid-in canvas, in December 1863 Rossetti wrote to Ellen Heaton: 'I remember you once asked me whether it would be possible to do anything of the kind from recollection; and though I then said No I think the beginning and sketches in question might enable me to do so' (quoted ibid.). The sketches, Rossetti mentioned elsewhere in the letter, were 'pencil sketches for it as a half figure comprising the arms & hands'. These presumably included the studies of the figure of Delia for his watercolour The Return of Tibullus to Delia c.1853 (Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery; Surtees 1971, no.62, studies nos.62a-f). In these drawings Lizzie has a similar expression to that found in the oil exhibited here.

Robert Upstone

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.154-7 no.44, reproduced in colour p.154