The Passover in the Holy Family: Gathering Bitter Herbs by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 1855-56. Watercolor, 16 x 17 inches. Tate Britain. Click on images to enlarge them.
James Collinson and William Holman Hunt made use of typology because it partook of their most closely held beliefs. But one does not expect to encounter such symbolism in the paintings and poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was never an orthodox believer and indeed had little interest in religion at all. Rossetti was not, like his brother William, a self-proclaimed atheist, but he had little concern for those kinds of spiritual matters with which typology is necessarily suffused. Throughout the course of his correspondence Hunt touches upon W. M. Rossetti's lack of belief. In a letter of 24 August 1887 to his wife Edith, he mentions that "on Sunday Mr & Mrs Rossetti were talking in a very patronising way about the 'poor man' Jesus, and he ridiculed the promises about coming again. I was too busy painting to be very forcible but I made him falter'" (Rylands Eng. MS. 1215).
As John Ruskin pointed out,
To Rossetti, the Old and New Testaments were only the greatest poems he knew; and he painted scenes from them with no more actual belief in their relation to the present life and business of men than he gave also to the "Morte d'Arthur" and the "Vita Nuova." But to Holman Hunt, the story of the New Testament . . . became what it was to an old Puritan, or an old Catholic of true blood, — not merely a Reality, not merely the greatest of Realities, but the only Reality. So that there is nothing in the earth for him any more that does not speak of that (The Art of England, Works, 33.271).
Certainly it is difficult to imagine Rossetti poring over the Bible like Hunt, searching for evidences of Christ in human history. It therefore comes as a surprise to find him insisting that his Passover in the Holy Family, a watercolor he painted for Ruskin in 1856, is a truer, more orthodox type than those Millais painted in Christ in the House of His Parents.
In a letter to Coventry Patmore, the poet who had rallied John Ruskin to the Pre-Raphaelite cause, Rossetti often sounds curiously like Hunt. Thus, he begins by stressing the factuality of his symbolic elements: "Perhaps I dwelt too much, in describing it, on the symbolic details . . . Its chief claim to interest, if successful when complete, would be as a subject which must have actually occurred every year of the life led by the Holy Family" (Letters, I, 276). Like Hunt, Rossetti opens his defense of the watercolor by emphasizing the factual, historical value of its imagery. He then emphasizes the way this subject allows him to integrate historical truths with an important symbolic meaning, for according to Rossetti this completed picture
must bear its meaning broadly and instantly — not as you say "remotely" — on the very face of it - in the one sacrifice really typical of the other. In this respect - its actuality as an incident no less than as a scriptural type - I think you will acknowledge it differs entirely from Herbert's some years back, or Millais's more recently, or any of the very many both ancient and modern which resemble it in so far as they are illustrations of Christ's life "subject to his parents," but not one of which that I can remember is anything more than an entire and often trifling fancy of the painter, in which the symbolism is not really inherent in the fact, but merely suggested or suggestible, and having had the fact made to fit it.
Rossetti's eloquent defence of his picture demonstrates how well aware he was of the capacities of typology to create an integrated symbolism. Nonetheless, its characteristic quality of making a "symbolism . . . really inherent in the fact" was not its major attraction for him.
As the sonnet he appended to his watercolor reveals, it was typology's interconnection of human times and events which made it so important to Rossetti. "The Passover in the Holy Family" guides us effectively through the picture's symbolism, and it is worth quoting in full both because it demonstrates how expertly he could handle prefigurative symbolism and because it suggests what there was about it which he found so attractive:
Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. "Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel," - did God say
By Moses" mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families,
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.
The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of Death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.
Clearly, Rossetti was attracted to typology because it provided an order and significance to human time. In poetry this form of symbolism has at least three different effects or uses. First, as we see in the poetry of Collinson , a typological image can generate the entire Gospel scheme of salvation. Thus, any particular type can lead the reader into the complex web of events that stretches across human history, immediately recreating for him the entire pattern of Christ's sacrifice. Used in this manner such imagery allows the poet to create powerful effects with great economy of means. Any allusion, secular or religious, will function in a somewhat similar manner, and what differentiates typology from other forms of allusion is the way it inevitably leads to the Christian conception of history which, in turn, creates a complete imaginative cosmos.
A second use or effect of this symbolic mode derives from its emphasis upon the reality of signifier and signified, for whereas in allegory the literal meaning is essentially cast away as soon as its meaning, the kernel, is perceived, in typology both literal and symbolic senses remain of value: both are true. It is from this emphasis upon signifier and signified that Hunt and Ruskin drew their theories of an integrated symbolism. Neither of these uses — generating the scheme of human salvation or creating a symbolic realism — interested Rossetti, although he clearly understood both. He was attracted by typology's third effect, its connection of two times, the second of which completes or "fulfills" the first. He was intrigued by the fact that prefigurative symbolism provides a means of redeeming human time, of perceiving an order and causality in human events. Those familiar with Rossetti's constant examination of the problems of time and loss in his poetry will immediately perceive how crucial such an idea could have been to him.
It is precisely this aspect of typological symbolism with which Rossetti concerns himself in his sonnet, which opens: "Here meet together the prefiguring day/And day prefigured." From this introduction the poem proceeds by setting forth the series of details - the types - which prefigure Christ's ultimate self-sacrifice. First, Rossetti invokes not just the celebration of Passover but all the events of the Exodus. Moses, perhaps the most important of all types, led forth the children of God from Egyptian slavery, guided them through their desert wanderings, gave them the Moral Law, and led them to the promised land; so Christ leads forth all men from the slavery of sin and time, guides them through the desert of this life, gives them the New Law, and finally leads them to the heavenly kingdom, the true Promised Land.
After relating the details of the Exodus and its commemoration in the Passover ritual, the poet emphasizes that "now" in the time of Christ, this re-enactment of the ancient celebration of deliverance brings together the Old Law and New - "the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay." In ancient times it was the blood of the lamb which kept death away from the Israelites; in the Passion and death of Jesus it will be his blood which will conquer death. The sestet moves to the actual sacrifice, itself another type of the Crucifixion, as the poet turns our attention from present to future (in the process possibly providing the title for one of Hunt's most important works):
What shadow of Death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest?
Just as the blood of the paschal lamb kept the Angel of Death from the houses of the enslaved Israelites, so shall the blood of Christ in future years enable men to triumph over death. At this point Rossetti refers to both type and prophecy when he has John bind the shoes "He deemed himself not worthy to unloose." The poem closes quietly with Mary gathering the bitter herbs, which in the Passover ritual symbolize the past sufferings of the Jews, but which here signify both the sufferings of Mary and the sufferings of Christ as well.
In addition to setting forth the meaning of his picture, "The Passover in the Holy Family" also sets this image within various temporal contexts. Ever since Lessing had reiterated the ancient truth that paintings were limited to a single moment in time, artists had increasingly concerned themselves with dramatically climactic moments. But this new form of symbolism offered a means of inserting the scene in several different times, as it were, and thus enriching the picture's effect. Paradoxically, this potential also emphasizes the limited nature of the visual image, because it makes it depend heavily for its effect upon linguistic, extra-visual sources for meaning and drama.
Virgin and Child by the Manchester Master. Mid-sixteenth century. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.
Rossetti's fascination with typological symbolism also appears in the poems he composed about other artists" works, for in these he is adding the typological dimension on his own authority. In most of these poems he combines typological allusions with prophecy, something entirely proper since types were held to be another mode of prophecy. Both his combination of type with prophecy and his concern with time appear in "The Holy Family," a sonnet he wrote for a painting in the National Gallery, London, once thought to be by Michelangelo. The poem begins with the Virgin Mary telling her son, "Turn not the prophet's page, O son! He knew/All that thou has to suffer," and Rossetti's note reminds his reader: "In this picture the Virgin Mother is seen withholding from the Child Saviour the prophetic writings in which his sufferings are foretold." Since the prophetic writings are almost certainly those of Isaiah, Rossetti would seem to be offering his own version of the incident Collinson had earlier treated in his poem. Mary tells the child that his "hour of knowledge" has not yet come, and for the moment only the angels (which the painting depicts) will know all, at which point the octet closes rather lamely: "For these things/The angels have desired to look into." Rossetti is having poetic difficulty explaining the presence of the angels, since, like Collinson, he treats the subject of the painting as an actual occurrence rather than an iconic configuration. By treating the Virgin and Child as real dramatic personages with their own psychology, he introduces - and almost succumbs to - difficulties foreign to the original painting. The sestet, which introduces the notion of typology, largely redeems the poem:
Still before Eden waves the fiery sword, —
Her Tree of Life unransomed: whose sad Tree
Of Knowledge yet to growth of Calvary
Must yield its Tempter, - Hell the earliest dead
Of Earth resign, - and yet, O Son and Lord,
The Seed o" the woman bruise the serpent's head.
Mary, whom Rossetti here supposes knows the future, turns away from Christ's coming sorrows towards the redemption of mankind. The sestet becomes prophecy as Mary ranges over all human time from the Fall to the unnamed Crucifixion. She begins by reminding Christ that the "fiery sword" still waves before Eden, keeping man from Paradise, since the Tree of Life has not yet been ransomed. Following an old tradition, Rossetti makes the Tree of Knowledge (and possibly the Tree of Life) serve as a type of the cross. Satan, that great tempter, must finally yield up both the Tree of Life and "the earliest dead." The poem ends with a skilful use of typological allusion: Mary, who has spoken of Christ's coming sacrifice in only the most oblique terms, again leads up to it with her reference to Genesis and again stops short of a clear statement of his future. Repeating God's words, Mary tells Jesus that "the Seed o" the woman [will] bruise the serpent's head," thus restoring life and Paradise to man. What she does not tell him is that the serpent will, in turn, bruise the heel of man — a prophecy conventionally taken to indicate the Crucifixion. By providing only the first half of this stock allusion, Rossetti skilfully reinforces the poignant situation depicted in the painting which inspired the sonnet.
Although the painting contains prophetic scrolls like Hunt’s The Shadow of Death, Rossetti added to the poem specific types of the tree and bruising the serpent. Because prophetic passages, such as Isaiah, were taken to predict the coming Messiah, he did not violate the spirit of the original picture's scrolls in employing prefigurative symbolism. Nonetheless, by choosing additional types and by using them as his means of poetic resolution, he added his own typological interpretation to the painting, one which, while not out of keeping with the original work, still seems a fairly obvious addition to it.
Created December 2001 Last modified 31 October 2020