Hans Memlinc. Virgin and Child from the Diptych of Martin von Nieuwenhove. 1487. Panel, 17 3/8 x 13 in. Hospital of St. John, Bruges.
This emphasis upon prophecy and its completion occurs again in the sonnet "For a Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmelinck," which may have been written about the left panel of the Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove. The difficulty with identifying the painting about which Rossetti writes is that the subtitle to his poem asserts it is "In the Academy of Bruges," and I have been unable to find a work either by Memlinc or which may have been attributed to him that matches Rossetti's description. The Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove is in the Hospital of St. John, Bruges, and Rossetti may simply have made a mistake here, as he did when he confused the subject of Gerard David's Judgment of Cambyses (see Letters, I, 85+n). One slight problem with my tentative identification of Rossetti's subject as the panel from the Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove is that there the Christ child is reaching for the fruit but does not yet hold it in his hand.
At any rate, following a tradition different from that accepted by Collinson, Rossetti again asserts that "Since first her task began/She hath known all," and Mary's burden of knowledge provides the major subject of this sonnet. Not until the sestet does it glance obliquely at Christ:
All hath been told her touching her dear Son,
And all shall be accomplished. Where He sits
Even now, a babe, He holds the symbol fruit
Perfect and chosen.
Even as an infant Jesus holds the passion fruit, a symbol or type of the Passion which points towards the fulfilment of the prophecy to Mary. Until that time which will complete the type "His soul's elect" still reside in Hell. although the poem places major emphasis upon the Virgin's long endured "pang of knowledge," it again proceeds by using a symbol which leads towards the future - a future which will first intensify that sorrow, and then replace it by heavenly joy. Once again, Rossetti placed another painter's work in a wider temporal context, though in this case he did so by merely deciphering its iconography.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "For An Annunciation, Early German"
One of the difficulties in following through Northern Renaissance influences upon the Pre-Raphaelites is that, not only have attributions frequently changed greatly since mid nineteenth century, but that, like their contemporaries, Hunt and Rossetti did not always distinguish among various schools and centuries, so that a reference to an early German master could include Albrecht Dürer, possibly Memlinc, or even a French painter. This problem arises, for example, in relation to another of Rossetti's sonnets, "For An Annunciation, Early German," which he wrote in 1847 for an unidentified picture, again draws upon conceptions of time and history intimately related to typology. What is so effective about this poem — a far better one than that he wrote for his own version of this subject — is the way Rossetti depicts the moment of annunciation, the moment when the eternal irrupts into human time, changing it forever. The sonnet presents Mary herself as the sharp dividing line between the two dispensations, for
She was Faith's present, parting what had been
From what began with her, and is for aye.
The poet places us within that fateful moment after which all things will change, because it begins the process by which Christ will enter history:
On either hand God's twofold system lay:
With meek bowed face a Virgin prayed between.
The sestet makes us feel the force of that moment even more. The angelic messenger has arrived at the threshold and the Dove of the Holy Spirit flies in to Mary, but Rossetti convinces us of the physical reality of the moment:
Heavy with heat, the plants yield shadow there;
The loud flies cross each other in the sun;
And the aisled pillars meet the poplar-aisle.
Whereas in the other poems at which we have looked Rossetti takes us out of the present by using typological imagery, here, having already emphasized the central importance to all history of this instant, he concentrates upon further immersing us in sensory detail-- we feel the heat, we hear the flies, we see the light and shadows, the poplars meeting. Like the early poems of William Morris, this sonnet uses intensely perceived details as a way of conveying the psychological state in which some event is perceived. Like "The Defence of Guenevere" or Rossetti's own "Woodspurge" and "Silent Noon," the details are felt to have registered at one of those crucial moments in a person's life. Here, of course, it is all men's lives, our own as well as Mary's, which is at issue, and having led us to an intellectual comprehension of this moment's importance, Rossetti then proceeds to make us feel that point in time as intensely as he can. Having begun by emphasizing the significance of moment, he then makes us feel it. There is little of explicit typology in this poem — merely the sense of culminating time and the fact that the appearance of Christ changes all men and all things.
Created December 2001 Last modified 31 October 2020