The Relationship Between Literature and Art

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout the years literature and art have always had a very close relationship however, deeper than this, is the link between poetry and painting. To discuss the reasons why one might value a ‘literary painting’ over other kinds of paintings, I will talk about the link between painting and poetry, often labelled as the “Sister arts”. Historically it has been suggested that without poetry there wouldn’t be painting. John Ruskin’s ‘humanistic theory of painting emphasized that painting had to depend upon poetry, as model and source, for subject, content, and purpose’[1], allowing the artist to create a visual to words. The Latin principle of Ut pictora poesis which directly translates to “As is painting, so is poetry”, serves to explain the relationship between painting and poetry. It is said that originally Horace’s maxim of ut pictora poesis referred to how, like poetry, some paintings can please the viewer from a distance, in contrast to others which require the viewer to conduct a close scrutiny of the painting in order to experience, furthermore appreciate the maximum viewing pleasure.[2] For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of their work was inspired by literary sources citing works such as, medieval folkore, Arthurian legends and the bible as stimuli. An example of this is, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849).

An oil on canvas piece that I will be reading later in the essay, as part of my argument that one might value a ‘literary painting’, over other kinds of paintings. [4] In addition to their repeated use of literary sources, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt compiled a list of writers whom they believed to be ‘Immortals’ to their cause. Their declaration went as such: We, the undersigned, declare that the following List of Immortals constitutes the whole of our Creed, and that there exists no other Immortality than what is centred in their names: Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Hogarth, Poe, Goethe, Barrett-Browning, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson…’

This doctrine followed by the members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood underlines their ideologies that were also shared by the late Victorian critic John Ruskin; they believed that poetry is “the highest art” and painting is only likened to it. Ruskin also continued to argue throughout the many volumes of his Modern Painters books that poetry and painting can, together, bring out the best qualities in one another. The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is renowned for their artistic links to literary sources, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti perfectly encapsulates the beautiful relationship between poetry and art. He was known to have practiced both poetry and art himself, but despite the act of juggling the two causing him great stress, he amalgamated the two with great excellency and proficiency which is shown in his many “double works”, including The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and The Blessed Damozel (with predella).[6][7] One of his first major works, twenty-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin which was completed in 1849; portrays a young virgin Mary and her parents St. Anne and St. Joachim. The medium of this piece is oil on canvas, and it has been painted in a very relaxed pre-Raphaelite style. Not only was this Rossetti’s first major oil painting, submitted to the free exhibition in London’s Hyde park but, it was the first painting exhibited to the public to hold the P.R.B signature in the bottom left-hand corner, introducing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a movement that would dominate the British art scene for decades.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, although it does not give us the distinct realism we often associate with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, includes the bold and vibrant colours that are commonly included in the works of the P.R.B. The Royal Academy worshipped the work of Raphael, however the strict artistic conventions that came from following Raphael’s work were opposed by the Brotherhood. Traditionally religious art is painted in an apex style, with Christ being at the top of the painting; the most eye catching. As we see in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, there is no clear apex figure within the painting. Instead we have a somewhat simple painting that is riddled with Christian Catholic symbolism that the viewer must uncover with the aid of Rossetti’s two sonnets. It is important to add however that the brotherhood did not reject the work of Raphael, or any other classical art. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was known for breaking from tradition, and Rossetti does so here by representing Mary engaged in embroidery under the guidance of her mother, when typically, in renaissance art she is traditionally depicted with a book in her lap being taught how to read with the leadership of her mother St. Anne. I imagine the painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was a very personal one. Not only was it his first major painting to be exhibited, he also used his mother to model St. Anne and his sister Christina Rossetti as the model for the young Mary. Rossetti defies the conventional norms again, by painting his sister who models for Mary with auburn hair. Knowing the Rossetti’s are of Italian descent, the viewer would presume she would have brunette hair, which would coincide with the traditional paintings of Mary. By doing this however, he continues to add his own touch to his religious painting which are often very strict and by the book. Instead he paints a radical alternative to the commonly painted sacred subject and characters.

The first thing we see in the painting is the young Virgin Mary working on some embroidery, with the guidance of her mother St Anne. Mary appears to be sewing a Lily, which is synonymous with her untainted beauty, youthfulness and innocence. The young Mary’s subject for her embroidery, a Lily, is well chosen by Rossetti as one of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhoods key principles was to ‘fidelity to nature’. Furthermore, by having Mary engaged in embroidery, this emphasizes her patience. In the painting we can see that her gaze is elsewhere instead of looking down at her needlework, suggesting her mind is not one hundred percent on the task at hand. It is assumed from the sonnets that partner the painting, that Mary is deep in spiritual thought. In the background we can see her father St. Joachim tending to the vines, and there are also some vines wrapped around a cross which foreshadows Christs’ death on the cross. Therefore, by having St. Joachim performing an action with the vines, Rossetti is referring to the coming of Christ who his daughter Mary will carry furthermore, in John 15;1 Christ calls himself the “True Vine”.

Rossetti makes use of traditional religious Christian iconography to fill the space around the main characters for example, the haloed-dove outside representing the holy spirit, the vibrant red of the fabric Mary is sewing on, and the shroud placed on the balcony almost drowns out the other colours with its vivid bold red. The use of the red is ironic because the intense red signifies the blood that Jesus will shed when he is tied to the cross, this is again alluded to with the cross wrapped in vines. In the background outside, behind St Joachim is the sea of Galilee and a bright blue sky. The colour blue in Christian religious paintings is often associated with heaven and faith. Despite the bold colours present, I believe the painting to have a somewhat sombre feel and tone to it with very muted shades however I feel this was done purposely by Rossetti to emphasise the pop of colour from the reds of the fabric and Angel wings. Such a bright colour was very uncommon in Victorian-era art, and so this disregard of the societal norms further links Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood to art that is before their time and before the Victorian era. Rossetti paints back to art of the late medieval and renaissance era, which was very uncommon and arguably unpopular in Victorian England at the time. Art historian Jason Rosenfield identifies how Rossetti “draws on early Renaissance paintings from Northern Europe and Italy, blended with a comprehensive religious symbolism expressed in a profusion of clearly observed details and natural forms”. The books beside the child-angel represent the theological virtues and three of the cardinal virtues these include – gold for Charity, blue for Faith, green for Hope, buff for Prudence, white for Temperance and brown for fortitude. It is known there are four cardinal virtues, and one, justice, has been omitted.

Attached to the painting were two sonnets written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, titled Marys Girlhood (For a picture), that serve as a guide and explain the religious iconography riddled throughout the painting. The first sonnet begins “This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect/ God’s virgin”, this highlights that we, the viewer, already know the future that is destined for Mary as she is going to bear Christ the Saviour however, it also emphasizes that her role was chosen in a time before her existence, despite her being unaware of her fate. Rossetti uses the first part of the two sonnets to set the scene of her girlhood however, he ends it with her annunciation, which he also paints. The moment where “she woke in her white bed, and had no fear” is seen visualised in Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation), in which he again uses his poet sister Christina Rossetti as a live model for Mary. In this painting we see repeated iconography, such as the completed embroidery. Mary had been working on in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. The Angel Gabriel is presenting Mary with a white lily, again signifying her purity and innocence, furthermore, in the background the presence of the Holy Spirit is again alluded to with the symbol of the white haloed-dove.

The second sonnet begins very flatly with “These are the symbols”, and guides the reader through the symbolic features within the painting. It is suggested that Rossetti wrote the second sonnet after the completion of the painting, allowing him to exactly describe the symbols present. He goes on to write:

The books – whose head

Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said –

Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich.

Therefore on them the lily standeth, which

Is Innocence, being interpreted.

Where one might have been struggling to read and interpret the painting, the accompanying sonnet will clarify to the viewer the meanings of the religious iconography. However, Rossetti doesn’t tell the reader in a rigid way, the verbal imagery and the relaxed iambic pentameter rhyme scheme of the sonnet match that of the painting.[15] Even though the second sonnet serves to enhance the viewing experience of the painting, it is not reliant on the painting and can be read as its own work of art. Both of the sonnets serve to clarify what the viewer already knows, or what they may be struggling to understand within the painting. Where the second sonnet is very explanatory in the symbolism present, the first sonnet augments this together by giving us the meaning on the surface and providing deeper insight into what is going on. Within the poems clues are given about the character of Mary, by describing her as being “Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;– Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect”, with this information we can analyse the painting even further. To illustrate this, the facial expression of Mary is somewhat perplexing however, with the information provided in the poem, the viewer can confidently deduce Mary’s plain expression as being that of seriousness and gravity.

Both The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) don’t need the sonnets to be understood, nor do the sonnets rely on the paintings for context however, the relationship Dante Gabriel Rossetti has formed between the two is a perfect example of Ut Pictora Poesis. The relationship between the poems and the paintings challenge the viewer to interact with them as a set, as well as individual items. Although, in this particular case the subtitle in the sonnets title of “For a picture” indicates that Rossetti believes primary importance to be on the pictures, further allowing the sonnets to be a work of art in their own right. The scene Dante Gabriel Rossetti has created in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is one that is not recorded in the Bible. Rossetti has conceived this idea using the traditional parts that are common knowledge of the annunciation theme, or in this particular scene, the pre-annunciation theme.

Literary paintings allow artists to make connections outside of their one single canvas, and for a group like the pre-Raphaelites this increased their complexity, significance and gave them prominence within the literary circles. Rossetti has added colour and shape to a theme that previously existed only through words, he has given these words texture and details such a face and hair etc. This is a painting that demands to be scrutinised so that full viewing pleasure can be achieved, the Christian iconography needs to be fully decoded so that the viewer can understand what is going on within the painting; this is the beauty of literary paintings. Literary paintings are a pleasure to be understood, and each viewer has a different viewing experience because they bring their own knowledge and understanding to the painting.

A piece like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin demands your attention so you can really explore what is going on. Whilst the sonnets have been written to accompany the paintings, they too demand to be scrutinised and deciphered in order to be understood for example, in the second sonnet Rossetti writes “Until the end be full, the Holy One – Abides without” referring to the dove being the presence of the Holy Spirit that will always be with Mary.

Finally, I think a reason why people might enjoy literary paintings over other kinds of paintings is because the painting is telling you a story about a piece of literature that you’re already familiar with. Literary paintings allow us to see something from the point of view of someone that isn’t us or the author; often when we’ve already got a visual of something in our head, it’s hard to try and reimagine it in a completely different way. Paintings have their own meanings, and we the viewer give further meaning to the paintings. Regardless of a literary painting like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin having to sonnets to help the viewer better understand the painting, at the end of the day, we the viewer have the final say of what we believe the painting to mean.


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