Sir John Everett Millais. The Vale of Rest. 1858; partially repainted 1862. 40 1/2 x 68 inches. Courtesy of Tate Britain, London N01507. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894. Click on image to enlarge it.

When I think about religion at all, I feel as though I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe. The Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread, and a chalice of empty wine. — Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Wilde describes a scene in which the accoutrements of religious ritual are used, unavailingly, without faith, belief or conviction. Some decades earlier, Millais’s The Vale of Rest (1859) captures the essence of Wilde’s thoughts. This disquieting work can also be read as a religious scene devoted to those who cannot believe. Belief in God, and his promise of eternal life, were challenged by scientific discovery in the middle of the nineteenth century. Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) is often credited with being the catalyst of the crisis in faith in the Victorain period, but Darwin was not exclusively responsible for Victorian religious doubts. In his essay, ‘The Warfare of Conscience with Theology,’ Joseph L. Altholz notes, “The conflict between humane ethics and rigorous dogma was responsible for some of the more spectacular losses of faith in the 1840s.” The erosion of the Christian faith in the nineteenth century underscored by a questioning of church teaching, which promoted concepts such as “Original sin,” eternal punishment and the fear of a wrathful God.” The faithful began to question teachings such as Baptismal Regeneration, without which God would condemn, a blameless infant, to eternal punishment, if unbaptised at the time of death. The questioning of such theological dogma, coupled with scientific advancement in geological study, and the eventual publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution inevitably resulted in confusion and suspicion surrounding long-held religious beliefs. Theodre Munger (1830-1910), who lived through these unsettling times, remarks on this crisis of faith: “Modern doubt destroys the sense of reality. It questions truth itself and envelopes all things in its puzzle - God, immortality, the value of life, the rewards of virtue and the operation of conscience. It puts quicksand under every step” (33). Millais’s The Vale of Rest reflects many of these unanswerable anxieties.

John Everett Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents. 1849-50. Oil on canvas, 34 x 55 inches; 864 x 1397 mm. Tate Britain, London. N03584. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and various subscribers 1921. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND. Click on image to enlarge it

Millais’s son, John Guille Millais, offers insight into the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, held by his father. “He rarely went to church but claims that his whole being was permeated by a sense of ‘the divinity that stirs within us’ and for him, Christianity was a ‘living force’” (312). With this in mind, it can be understood that Millais’s spirituality is invested in life itself and the living force of nature, rather than in an organised religion or the promise of an after-life. This spiritual agnosticism can be detected in Millais’s earlier work, Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849-50, in which the Holy Family are rendered not as deities, but as an ordinary family, in a nineteenth-century carpenter’s workshop. George P. Landow notes that this painting, “exemplifies the early Pre-Raphaelite use of typology as a basis for symbolic realism.” As Landow points out, “Millais, who was inspired by a High Anglican sermon in Oxford to paint his picture, provides an instance of Tractarian use of such symbolism, for his representation of an imagined event from the life of Jesus serves as an image of Christ as priest and sacrifice” (Chapter 4, part 2). For Marcia Werner, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “display an attraction to sacred imagery and to the idea of spirituality, but it is used more as an aesthetic and moral model than as an expression of revealed truth” (90). Religious iconography and imagery are common themes for the Brotherhood. Whilst this theme may not be intended as devotional, its true meaning is often unintelligible. The Vale of Rest, however, makes a coherent statement.

The desire to paint a composition of nuns came to Millais shortly after his marriage to Effie Gray. Jan Marsh explains that, “according to Effie, the idea of painting a full-sized picture, ‘with nuns in it’ occurred to Millais during their honeymoon in 1855” (40). He began the piece in the garden of his wife’s family home in Perth, Scotland, that same year. Millais took a nearby graveyard as his inspiration. Considering the potential meaning or message in the painting, Marsh concludes that “whatever its import, this is a strange theme to have been conceived during a honeymoon”(40). Millais’s son, when speaking of his parents’ marriage, however, recounts that one of the bride’s younger siblings was baptised directly after the wedding ceremony. Therefore, it could be argued that it would have been perfectly natural for the young Millais to reflect upon both religious ceremonies at which he had been present, for it is common to question one’s religious belief in such circumstances. It is also common for a newly wed couple to discuss religious matters which will be relevant to the upbringing of their future children. Millais was moved to express his own position on such matters, whilst reflecting on the general loss of belief within Victorian society. This expression, took the form of The Vale of Rest.

With a change in marital status for Milliais came a change in artistic execution. The Vale of Rest, is often cited as the point at which the artist departs from his previous Pre-Raphaelite style and scrutiny of detail. For Rachel Barnes, the work demonstrates “a softening of the edges, a loosening of his previous tightly executed,immaculate technique” (59). The composition makes for an arresting scene: two young nuns appear confined within the walls of a graveyard as one strenuously digs a grave while the other fixes a haunting gaze upon the viewer. Millais composed the scene so that the viewer stands, precariously, at the edge of a gaping grave asa majestic sunset while fills the sky. The Vale of Rest forms a group with Autumn Leaves (1856) and Spring (1859). These three paintings are may be read in terms of the transient nature of life: Time passes, seasons change, the sun will set, the day will end and death will come to all. To read The Vale of Rest as a simple memento mori, however, would be remiss.

Left: Autumn Leaves. Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96). 1855-56. Oil canvas, 41 x 29 inches inches. City Art Galleries, Manchester. Right: Sir John Everett Millais. Apple Blossoms or Spring. 1858-59. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Wirra. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

First of all, the unsettling expression on the face of the seated nun draws the viewer’s attention. One possibility in keeping with the painting’s subject would be that the seated num looks at us, drawing us into the scene and reminding us that we, too, will die. I believe, however, that although she is clearly a religious figure, traditionally associated with the promise of eternal life, her facial expression belies her identifiable position. Like Oscar Wilde’s priest, this nun offers no religious hope or comfort. She too radiates a lack of peace in her heart. Her expression, at once confrontational yet beseeching, makes viewers feel that they have disturbed a private moment within the confines of the churchyard. Rather than offer comfort this nun seems to implore the spectator for solace.

Further exploration of the painting revealsthat its imagery underlines a questioning of theology’s promise of eternal life. The seated nun holds rosary beads, complete with crucifix, traditionally associated with salvation and resurrection. If one takes the painting to be a conventional momento mori, then the skull on the rosary, like the grave itself, reminds viewes that they too will die. However, the skull could counteract the promise of resurrection and offer only death. If so, the conflicting appendages on the rosary beads reflect the confounding expression on her face. This sentiment is repeated in the uncovering of bones in the upturned soil at the hand of the nun who his laboriously digging. Death is not the starting point of eternal promise, it is the end.

Visually, the nuns are no closer to eternal life than is the spectator. The muted colour palette employed by Millais blends their forms with the freshly opened grave. They are tethered to the earth rather than to the heavens. Paul Barlow observes the nuns’ “dark dresses blend into the browns of the upturned soil and stones. Only their white wimples catch the light, creating layers of creamy yellows and greens” (89). The nun actively engaged in grave digging direct contrast — physically but not emotionally —  with the physical composure of her seated counterpart. Jason Rosenfeld describes the scene. pointing out that “she has tossed off her gown and is intent in her work, forearms tensed, preparing to fling the mound of soil across her body, onto the pile on her left, the wimple round her head delicately twisting with her motion” (108). Her youth and vigour contrast to the stillness of the graveyard setting, yet she is placed firmly in the grasp of death.

The fact that Millais depicts members of a religious order is vital to the argument that this piece symbolizes the death of religion. These young nuns, traditionally associated with devotion to God and hope of eternal life, are surrounded by imagery of death. Jan Marsh speculates as to whom the grave is intended for and questions if it is indeed the grave of the digger herself. She compares the devotion of a young woman’s life, to a holy order, with death and describes such a sacrifice as convent life as, “The living burial of conventual life” (40).In a society which valued motherhood above all female roles, being a bride of Christ, rather than the bride of a suitable terrestrial husband, conventual life could be viewed as somewhat redundant. Abigail Newman questions the same sentiment, “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?” The golden yellow of the circular funeral wreaths, placed beside the seated nun, call to mind the golden bands of matrimony. These circular floral rings however, will adorn a grave rather than a ring finger. In this light, the nuns are already dead to society, rendering Millais’s depiction, all the more poignant.They have devoted their lives to a God for whom, ever increasing numbers of Victorians, simply does not exist

Many view this painting as a symbol of the transience of life. A simple memento mori would equally have been achieved through the depiction of a more traditional grave digger. Jason Rosenfeld highlights Millais’s penchant for painting from life noting, “An obliging sexton dug Millais a grave to paint from” (108). Millais could, effectively, have included the grave digger, to evoke thoughts of inescapable death. The painter places a nun standing, in her own grave, to reflect the anxieties of his time, surrounding loss of faith. She, a symbol of religious belief, is to be buried.

Rosenfeld describes the painting as a “meditation on mortality and loss” (190). Contemplating man’s mortality was not novel in art at this time or throughout art history. Depicting the death of organised religion, however, was a brave and relevant critique by Millais on the social concerns of his era. His aforementioned work, Christ in the House of his Parents, was met with horror, by critics and the public alike. His rendering of the Holy Family, styled as a lower-class Victorian family, bare feet and dirty fingernails included, caused outrage. It must be conceded, following this earlier controversy, that Millais displayed great courage in broaching a religious topic, once again, so contentiously rendered. Nonetheless, the painter risked further negative reaction, to capture the Victorian crisis of faith, in a visual medium, and to address the hypocrisy which surrounded the issue of belief.

If the artist wished to instigate sincere discussion on the subject however, he would be disheartened. Millais was disappointed in the reception that,The Vale of Rest, was met with at the Royal Academy. John Guille Millais recounted that his father had complained to his mother, Effie, “Nothing can be more irritating and perplexing than the present state of things. There seems to be a total want of confidence in the merits of the picture, amongst even the dealers” (339). It would seem the message Millais had hoped to convey had been overlooked. Paul Barlow comments that, “The portrayal of both nuns disturbed contemporary viewers, for whom the worker was ungainly and the thinker ugly,” and adds, “The Vale of Rest proved difficult to sell even after Millais softened the features of the contemplative nun”(90). John Guille Millais recalled that not even John Ruskin, the original inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s combination of biblical symbolism and realistic detail, which had inspired, Christ in the House of his Parents, could champion, The Vale of Rest, and spoke of “the ugliness and ‘frightfulness’ of the figures” (333).

The painting’s exhibition at the Parisian Salon, in 1862, however, lead to the artist being compared with the French Realist artist and social commentator, Jean-François Millet. Such a comparison underlines the French recognition of Millais’s concern with reflecting sober social matters of the day in his work. Barlow notes, “The painting’s twilight mix of manual labour, with rural Catholic religiosity, being readily identified with Millet’s characteristic subjects” (97). Millais could take heart that, to the French at least, the painting carried more of an overriding message than simply death and the transience of life.

The title, The Vale of Rest, is taken from Mendelssohn’s ‘Ruhetal’, from Sechs Lieder, Opus 59, No 5. The Tate Gallery’s catalogue for their 1984 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition notes that the The Vale of Rest’s entry in the Royal Academy exhibition catalogue was accompanied by the line “Where the weary find repose” (176). But this piece offers neither rest nor repose. The subjects are the antithesis of rest: one engaged in vigorous labour, the other engaged in emotional unrest. The spectator, likewise, is afforded no rest. The eye travels from the open grave, to the coffin shaped cloud in the sky, and from the upturned bones to the skull on the rosary beads. Two funeral wreaths are placed beside the seated nun, one, perhaps, for each figure. All around is imagery of death. The atmosphere created by Millais is sombre, eerie and hopeless. Figures who traditionally may be associated with charity and grace offer nothing but disregard and discomfort.

There is, however, one focal point in which the viewer may seek sanctuary: the beauty of nature beyond the confinements of the churchyard walls. The resplendent sunset, may reflect Millais’s own belief that Christianity is a living force. Perhaps the painter is asking us to contemplate the heavenly beauty available to us in the life we already possess. This philosophy may be reflected in the inspiration for the title of the work.

Millais does not leave us entirely void of hope. Recalling that, The Vale of Rest, was accompanied at its original exhibition with the line, “Where the weary find repose,” it is admissible for the viewer to question where repose may be found in this disconcerting work. The two young nuns, one intent on her work, the other confronting the viewer's gaze, do not in any way engage with nature. As one focuses her attention on the grave, the other stares out of the canvas, into the audience of the Royal Academy. Behind both young women, the sun is setting, in magnificent splendour. The promise of an eternal afterlife may be evaporating but the beauty of the natural world, in this life, is undeniable. It is present, it is available to all, and it is where the weary may find repose.


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Last modified 8 October 2019