Illustrated companion

The title translates as 'Beatrice blessed' and refers to Dante's Vita Nuova (The New Life), the celebrated account of the poet's unrequited love for a young Florentine woman, Beatrice Portinari. Beatrice died prematurely, on 9 June 1290, at the age of twenty four, and the inspiration of Rossetti's picture is the account of her death given by Dante in the Vita Nuova: 'She hath gone to Heaven suddenly / And left Love on Earth to mourn with me'. Rossetti was fascinated by the Vita Nuova, as one of the world's great accounts of a pure, spiritual passion of a man for a woman and the lines quoted are from his own translation. In the background of the painting can be seen the figures of Dante, on the right, in green, and Love, on the left, in red. Between them, dimly in the distance, is the characteristic shape of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The image of Beatrice herself is not, as Rossetti emphasised in a letter of 1873, a literal representation of her death but 'an ideal of the subject, symbolised by a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration.' Rossetti continues his account: 'Beatrice is rapt visibly into Heaven, seeing as it were through her shut lids (as Dante says at the close of the Vita Nuova) "Him who is Blessed throughout all ages"; and in sign of the supreme change, the radiant bird, a messenger of death, drops the white poppy between her open hands. In the background is the City which, as Dante says: "sat solitary" in mourning for her death; and through whose street Dante himself is seen to pass gazing towards the figure of Love opposite in whose hand the waning life of his lady flickers as a flame. On the sundial at her side the shadow falls on the hour of nine, which number Dante connects mystically in many ways with her and with her death.'

There seems little doubt that this painting was intended by Rossetti as a tribute to his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal, of whom the figure of Beatrice is a clear portrait, presumably based on drawings done before her death in February 1862. Rossetti presents an idealised vision of Elizabeth as Beatrice and by implication himself as Dante, and his love as pure as Dante's love. This reading is reinforced by the prominence of the white opium poppy, a fairly common poetic symbol of death, but having a special relevance here, since Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of opium, in the form of the popular Victorian medicine, laudanum. The frame was designed by Rossetti and in addition to the date of Beatrice's death at the top, is inscribed with a line from the Book of Lamentations (1.1.) quoted by Dante in the Vita Nuova and referred to by Rossetti in his description of the picture: 'Quomodo sedet sola Civitas' - 'how doth the city sit solitary' - suggesting, as Rossetti says, that the whole of Florence was mourning the death of Beatrice. In the roundels are representations of the sun, the stars, the moon and the earth, referring to the last lines of Dante's Divine Comedy: 'Love which moves the sun and all the stars'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.86