Set in a graveyard at dusk, John Everett Millais's The Vale of Rest (1859) depicts two nuns, one engaged in digging a grave, the other sitting on what appears to be a gravestone or sarcophagus, staring out at the viewer. Composed of two dark stripes of purple and numerous shades of pale pink made intense by their juxtaposition with bright yellow, the sky in the painting appears particularly luminous and atmospheric when compared with the rest of the painting. The trees that Millais depicts with great attention to minute natural details appear as dark silhouettes against the bright, but no doubt fading, sky. The back wall of the graveyard, almost entirely hidden in shadow with few details of its surface visible, forms a divide between the image of the trees against the sky, above, and the scene of the two nuns, below.
Millais creates a foreground scene that immediately draws the viewer into the action of the painting. The young, attractive nuns, entrusted with the physical task of burial, must confront mortality directly and hence their own ultimate fate of aging, decay and death. The nun digging turns away from the viewer, allowing only the profile of her face to be scene. She seems to confront death actively by physically taking advantage of her life and vitality to perform a useful function. The other nun, sits with her hands folded, a rosary with a cross and skull resting in the folds of her habit. Likely used as a memento mori -- a common feature in Netherlandish vanitas scenes-- the skull reminds the nun and the viewer of the constant imminence of death. This nun looks directly out of the painting, her expression tranquil but her eyes wide open in an intense gaze. Unlike the other nun, she appears to contemplate the death before her, passively reflecting, rather than subordinating her thoughts on death to useful actions.
Millais's decision to paint one nun standing, her body and mind evidently fully occupied with her work, and the other sitting in religious and emotional contemplation -- emphasized by her possession of the rosary with the skull -- seems to suggest two ways in which people grapple with their mortality. Does Millais indicate in any way if he believes one of these methods is superior?
Millais's depiction of the nuns as youthful, attractive, vigorous women underscores the poignancy of the image. Does he intend merely sympathy for these women and their loss of youthful innocence by means of their religious choices? Does the image somehow implicate, in their absence, young people who frivolously ignore the omnipresent threat of death? How would the image be different if he had instead chosen to portray two older nuns? Would the painting be more pessimistic than it is now?
The presence of the skull, the gravestones and the coffin-shaped cloud (noted on the Tate's website and described as a "premonition of death" according to Scottish folklore) suggest that this scene can be understood as coming out of the tradition of vanitas paintings, as noted above. Are there other religious symbols in the painting that further this theme? To what extent does this painting break with Pre-Raphaelite tradition by relying on well-established symbols, such as the skull, rather than seeking new and more relevant symbols for the Victorian era?
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984.
Last modified 28 September 2004
Link added 8 October 2019