Exhibition catalogue text

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

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI 1828-1882

31 Dantis Amor 1860

Oil on mahogany panel 74.9 x 81.3 (29 1/2 x 32)
Inscribed 'QVI EST PER OMNIA SAECVLA BENEDICTVS' t.l., in halo
Prov: William Morris, for whom painted; Ernest Gambart 1865; F. Treharne James, by whom presented to the Tate Gallery 1920
Exh: Tate Gallery 1923 (12); London and Birmingham 1973 (102); Rotterdam 1975 (203); Tate Gallery 1984 (104)
Lit: Marillier 1899, no.91; Ironside and Gere 1948, pp.34-7, repr. pl.43; Surtees 1970, no.117; Lucie-Smith 1972, p.42; Lochnan, Shoenherr and Silver 1993, pp.104-7

Tate Gallery. Presented by F. Treharne James 1920

Rossetti designed this panel as one of three to decorate a piece of furniture - a large settle-cum-cupboard - which William Morris had made by Henry Price, a local cabinet-maker, for his London house at 17 Red Lion Square. In the period immediately after Morris's marriage to Jane Burden in April 1859 the settle was removed and dismantled; at this point Rossetti produced two panels for it, The Salutation of Beatrice on Earth and In Eden, as a wedding present. In 1860 it was installed in the Red House at Bexley Heath and it seems that this third panel was executed there. The timber of the settle was apparently painted a dark 'dragon's blood' red which, as Lochnan, Shoenherr and Silver point out, would have set off Rossetti's designs to great advantage. The decorations were later sold, though the settle remains at the Red House. A substitute for this subject was inserted after the present panel had been removed in about 1863; that and the two Salutation panels are now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. There are pen-and-ink drawings for both versions of Dantis Amor in the collection of Birmingham City Art Gallery (Surtees 1970, nos.117A, 117B). The earliest design for the multiple subject dates from 1849 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard).

Dantis Amor was intended to be mounted in the settle between the earthly and the heavenly Salutations of Beatrice. The likeness of the earthly Beatrice was taken from Morris's new wife Jane, with whom Rossetti was already smitten, and who would later become his mistress; the heavenly Beatrice was a portrait of his own mistress, soon to become his wife, Lizzie Siddal. Rossetti's later obsession with the death of Lizzie, celebrated particularly in Beata Beatrix (no.44), is therefore fortuitously prefigured in Dantis Amor, with several touches of irony, both conscious and unconscious. The intention of the design is to give a sort of heraldic diagram of the death of Beatrice and her union with Christ. The figure of the angel holds a sundial marking the moment of her death, which the drawing in Birmingham specifies is the ninth hour, 12 June 1290, while she is portrayed on the lower side of a diagonal line of separation in a crescent moon surrounded by stars, looking up towards the haloed head of Christ, on the upper side, which is the centre of a stylised corona of irradiating flames. On the drawing Rossetti inscribed along the dividing diagonal the concluding line of Dante's Divine Comedy 'L'AMOR CHE MVOVE IL SOLE E L'ALTRE STELLE' (Paradiso xxxiii, l.145), and round Beatrice's head 'QUELLA BEATA BEATRICE CHE MIRA CONTINVAMENTE NELLA FACCIA DI COLVI' from the close of his Vita Nuova - as well as the quotation in Christ's halo, which continues the same passage.

The schematic presentation of the Beatrice myth here is a significant development of Rossetti's use of the original legend. He abandons entirely the narrative devices that remain, if only vestigially, in the side panels, reducing his image to a boldly diagrammatic statement of the essential relationships, and of the central meaning of Dante's writings: the all-pervading power of love in life and death throughout Creation. Rossetti's translation of Dante's own words suggests the quasi-geometrical conception: 'Love tells the poet: 'I am in the centre of a circle to which all parts of the circumference bear an equal relation, but with thee it is not so.' Rossetti's gloss on this was: 'all loveable objects, whether in heaven or earth, or any part of the earth's circumference, are equally near to Love; not so to Dante, who will one day lose Beatrice when she dies.' While the angel and the two heads are finely rendered, it has been suggested that the pattern-like background is the work of another hand. This may well be the case; but it is entirely in keeping with the reductive nature of the image that the idea of the firmament, and of the sun and the moon, should be converted into a formula. The device of stars against a solid ground of deep blue had been a prominent element in the decorative vocabulary of A.W.N. Pugin in his ecclesiastical designs of the 1840s; but there are implications in the panel as a whole for the development of a much simplified formal language of design in the later years of the century (one might compare Beardsley's diagonal-line decoration for the cover of Ernest Dowson's Verses, 1896; Reade 1967, p.457).

Andrew Wilton

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.134-6 no.31, reproduced in colour p.135