Exhibition catalogue text

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


70 Sancta Lilias 1874

Oil on canvas 48.3 x 45.7 (19 x 18)
Inscribed with Rossetti's monogram and '1874' t.l.
Prov: Given by the artist to Hon. William and Mrs Cowper-Temple, Broadlands 1876; by descent to their adopted daughter Mme Deschamps, by whom presented to the Tate Gallery 1909
Exh: Burlington Fine Arts Club 1883 (87); Tate Gallery 1911 (2440)
Lit: Surtees 1971, no.244c, pl.358

Tate Gallery. Presented by Madame Deschamps in memory of Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple 1909

This is an abandoned and cut-down first version of one of Rossetti's most important Symbolist pictures, The Blessed Damozel 1875-8 (fig.55 on p.186). Whereas Rossetti's paintings often prompted verses, this is the only one to have derived from a poem of his. Started in 1848, the poem of the same title was first published in February 1850 in The Germ, but underwent continuous alteration until the final version of the text appeared in 1881. It tells of the yearning of a dead woman in Heaven for reunification with her still-living lover. In the painting, Rossetti shows the Blessed Damozel looking down upon her beloved, who is depicted below her in a predella. Behind her, pairs of lovers embrace, united once again in Heaven. This situation has a poignant parallel in Rossetti's own life through the death of his own wife Lizzie Siddall (see no.44). The literary sources he drew upon for the theme of separation caused by death are partly Philip James Bailey's Festus, first published in 1839, which Rossetti read constantly while writing the poem, and Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven (1845). Rossetti told Hall Caine in 1887 'I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven' (Caine 1928, p.284).

However, an evident additional if not pre-eminent source of inspiration is to be found in the writings of the Swedish philosopher, theologian and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In Conjugial Love (1768) Swedenborg wrote extensively about how each man and woman has a single, ideal partner - a 'conjugial partner' - and that their conjunction creates an eternal, sanctified love. In Heaven, the union of these two partners creates a single being, an angel, and it is only through this conjunction that they can become whole. In his text Swedenborg also stresses the divine nature of sexual delight.

The background of embracing couples in The Blessed Damozel therefore depicts the conjunction of lovers' souls: 'Around her, lovers, newly met / Mid deathless love's acclaims, / Spoke evermore among themselves / Their heart-remembered names' (36-40).

The Damozel looks forward to her own reunion, asking when: '... shall God lift / To endless unity / The soul whose likeness with thy soul / Was but its love for thee?' (99-102).

It might be assumed that Rossetti was thinking of his reunion with Lizzie, but his inner conflicts and complex feelings are displayed in the picture. The women in the background are all apparently modelled on Jane Morris, and it might be that Rossetti was considering whether Lizzie or Jane was his true 'conjugial' partner. In either case, it would only be Heaven where they would be reunited. Rossetti's dilemma had a Swedenborgian basis, for Conjugial Love contains dire warnings about the consequences of spending the earthly years with anyone other than one's ideal partner.

There are further Swedenborgian elements as well as symbolic allusions connected to Classical mythology in both painting and poem. The stars in the Damozel's hair 'were seven', a number to which Swedenborg attached great symbolic significance, corresponding to his beliefs about the 'seven stages of the mind', as well as the seven days of Creation. Stars to Swedenborg represented someone's knowledge of good and truth. Among many other things grouped in seven, seven stars are referred to in the Book of Revelations, a key text in Swedenborg's philosophy which he 'decoded' in The Apocalypse Explained (1757-9) and The Apocalypse Revealed (1766). However, the principal source Rossetti had in mind were the seven stars of the Pleiades. In Classical myth the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione were transformed into seven stars. However, one of them, Merope, shines invisibly out of shame for her love for a mere mortal, Sisyphus. Alluding to this myth, Rossetti painted only six stars around the Damozel in The Blessed Damozel and Sancta Lilias. This reference to Merope might perhaps indicate that he perceived the Damozel (Lizzie) as a goddess, and her lover (himself) as Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to roll a giant boulder eternally up a hill, and Rossetti's identification with him may suggest that he viewed his life as a widower-painter as being similarly relentless and unrewarding. What might seem strange in this context is that Rossetti did not use Lizzie's portrait for either The Blessed Damozel or Sancta Lilias, as he had done in Beata Beatrix (no.44). Instead Alexa Wilding modelled for the Damozel, perhaps at the suggestion of his patron William Graham.

The three lilies held by the Damozel may refer both to the Trinity and the Annunciation. In Christian art lilies symbolise purity, chastity and innocence, and in images of the Annunciation Mary is presented with a lily by the Archangel Gabriel. This allusion to the Annunciation may also have personal resonance. Gabriel was of course Rossetti's first name, although he later changed the order so that Dante was first, and Lizzie had been pregnant with his child. In Sancta Lilias the Damozel holds three irises, flowers which are members of the lily family. In Classical myth Iris was the goddess of the rainbow, using it as a bridge from heaven to the earth, and in this context may be an allusion by Rossetti to contact between the spiritual and temporal worlds (see no.7). The sensuality of his later drawing The Spirit of the Rainbow 1876 (Surtees no.245) is also undoubtedly relevant here.

Rossetti was not unusual in responding to Swedenborg's ideas. Many of his texts were first published in London, and the Swedenborg Society was founded there in 1810 to promote his works. The Church of the New Jerusalem which was founded on his ideas grew throughout the nineteenth century. Rossetti is likely to have known of Blake's interest in Swedenborgian philosophy, but his closest connection with such ideas may have come through his friendship with Robert Browning. Browning and his wife Elizabeth were enthusiastic about Swedenborg and owned a copy of Conjugial Love. Some of the poems in Browning's Men and Women (1855) praising the pleasures of marriage might well be seen as developing themes taken from Swedenborg. This group of verses was greatly admired by Rossetti, and in his own House of Love (1870), some poems, greatly criticised by Buchanan as a product of the 'fleshly school of poetry', extol the virtues of physical love, repeating the philosophy Swedenborg proposed in Conjugial Love. In 1855 Rossetti presented a fair copy manuscript to the Brownings, the only one to have survived, an act which may be interpreted as confirming the Swedenborgian links between the two poets.

The publication of 'The Blessed Damozel' in France evoked great interest, as manifested by Debussy's setting of the poem (see no.82). Rossetti's poems had first been known in France in 1871 through the efforts of Emile Bl?mont, a friend of Fantin-Latour's. However, it was the appearance of the translation by Gabriel Sarrazin in 1885, in his series Les Po?tes Modernes de l'Angleterre, that sparked widespread knowledge and admiration for Rossetti's poetry. Swedenborg's ideas were already popular there, and Symbolists such as Baudelaire and Mallarm? were familiar with his texts. Indeed, Baudelaire's poem 'Correspondances' in Les Fleurs du Mal (1861) can be read in Swedenborgian terms. The continental Symbolists' concept of the correspondence between art, music and literature finds its parallel in Swedenborg's analysis of the correspondence between the temporal and the heavenly, and between the spirit and matter, as for example in Arcana Caelestia (1749-56) and The Apocalypse Explained (1757-9).

Sancta Lilias was Rossetti's first realisation in oils of The Blessed Damozel. Clearly he disliked something about it, and abandoning it, had it cut down to its current form and began the composition anew. The drapery of the dress has been left unfinished. The picture was apparently started in September 1873, as this date was inscribed on an old label on the reverse. A drawing for the predella of The Blessed Damozel is no.71. See also Hodler's Dream (no.135).

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.191-3 no.70, reproduced in colour p.192