Woman as Flower

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-49
Oil on canvas, 83.5 x 65.5 cm
Tate, London N04872

It is my contention that rather than being introduced as accessories, background props, decorative flourishes or even symbolic tropes, flowers can provide Rossetti with a means to embody the female gender, the sympathetic treatment of which mirrors the injustices meted out to the women he portrays.  Although often dismissed as displaying scant social purpose in his art, Rossetti is anything but passive where the treatment of women is concerned.  Instead, he manipulates natural convention for a serious purpose.  Rossetti offers a poignantly profound and empathetic perspective on the condition of Woman, forever subjected to the dialectical opposites of virgin and whore: an on-going fiercely contested conversation, never more topical than in the present moment with the ongoing #MeToo campaign.

The idea of woman as a flower rather than like a flower was not in itself pioneering.  From a Christian perspective, the twelfth-century clergyman Adam, Abbot of Perseigne, has been credited as one of the first to conflate the Virgin and flowers:

Maria hortus conclusus in quo immarcessibile Virginitatis albescit  lilium, inviolabilis  humilitatis fragrat viola, rosa rubescit inextinguibilis charitatis

Mary is a garden enclosed where bloomed the white lily of her immaculate virginity, where the violet of her inviolate humility sent off its fragrance, and the rose of her inextinguishable charity bloomed in its redness.[i]

The Latin term hortus conclusus literally translates as ‘enclosed garden’ and is often depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art as an outdoor enclosure or bower within which sits the Madonna or, more often, the Madonna and Child.  On a metaphorical level, of course, the enclosed garden also refers to the Virgin herself, or rather the purity of her procreative power, her womb remaining untouched and protected from sin.           

Even earlier the Roman poet Ovid immortalised countless unfortunate protagonists, male and female, as honorary members of the plant genus (eg: Narcissus (3.341-510), Anemone (10.731-39), Larkspur (13.394-98), Laurel (1.452-567), Hyacinth (10.160-218) or Reed (13.890-97)),  often transmuting their situations, predicaments, virtues or vices from human concerns into Nature’s reflections.  Below we see Gian Lorenzo Bernini capturing the moment Daphne, to escape the advances of the libidinous Apollo, transforms into a laurel tree:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Apollo & Daphne (1622-25)
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Dante Gabriel read Latin along with French, German and a little Greek at King’s College School from 1837-1842, and he would most certainly have been conversant with Ovid’s transformative tales.  These myths, while exploring an extraordinary range of experience, display ‘a penetrating psychological knowledge of the variety of human motivations and delusions’.[ii] As each animate human character merges with its natural equivalent, the line between what we take to be normal and extraordinary becomes blurred.  

Where Ovid and Rossetti clearly differ is in their approach to the portrayal of irrevocable change.  Ovid’s humans are absorbed by the natural world, never to be seen again.  The nature of Rossetti’s visual medium, however, allows the person and the plant to co-exist. Rossetti can reflect the essence of his women and their corresponding manifestations of the natural world within the same frame and, crucially, in the same moment, oscillating between the two states.  Rossetti’s metamorphic and psychological vision can, therefore, unfold in medias res and just as quickly revert to the original condition.  This means that time, if not curiously suspended, loses its conventional linear definition.  The timelessness of the portrayal suggests that the trials and tribulations facing his central protagonists exist beyond time.  These are challenges faced by women throughout time, rather than challenges faced by any particular woman in time. 

In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, what John B. Bullen calls ‘Rossetti’s unorthodox, numinous beliefs and his rebellious attitude to theological humility’ become evident when we consider the relationship between the young Madonna and her flowers. The adolescent, grey-gowned Mary sits with her mother, St Anne, embroidering a lily, while a young angel, arm outstretched, pours a golden vial of holy water into the vessel holding the flower.  St Joachim, Mary’s father, prunes and secures the vine in the garden outside.  Allusions to the purity of the Virgin are embodied within not one, but the two separate lilies. 

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin ( detail)
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (detail)

There is one growing upright, and a second stitched into the embroidery, held in place by the warp and weft threads of the red fabric.  It is assumed that the lilies’ meaning is obvious: ‘their whiteness meant that Mary knew no sin, that her vocation spared her the yoke of human bondage, she was as white and pure as they, as sweet, as golden-hearted.’[iii]

However, we do well to examine it inch by inch, giving it much time, as Ruskin would have it, for Rossetti is manipulating meaning to create many more layers of allusion, only revealed on more intricate examination.[iv] Mary is copying the lily watered by the angel before her, having started with the three flower heads and now embroidering its interminable stem, which points directly towards her.  The other lily is secured rather strangely in the decorative two-handled red jug.  We have to assume that this lily is not a cut flower because it would be unable to stand so upright.  It must, therefore, be planted, despite the lily bulb being comparatively large in relation to the slender vessel.  It is not as nature intended.  The lily flower will spring from the womb-shaped bulb, just as the Christ Child will emerge in time.  Both are created from unnatural conditions: the lily flower from the dark, confined space of the pitcher and Christ from the Virgin Birth.  

The rose, meanwhile, is balanced somewhat precariously on the terrace wall, its fragile stem and single delicate pink flower dwarfed by the lily in the foreground. 

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (detail)

 It is only recently out of bud, thornless, and not yet flowering to its full potential, not unlike the young virginal woman herself.  Again, it is assumed that the meaning of the rose is sacrosanct, since it is one of the common attributes of the Virgin Mary, but if we look closely at its treatment, we see that all is not as it seems. 

The rose feebly reaches up to the light, deformed and unremarkable next to the strong branches of the vine growing abundantly above it.  The rose head coincides with the young leaves of the vine, and also ends at the same level as the cruciform horizontal, where co-incidentally, the third flower of the lily in the pot ends: the rose, the lily, the vine, and the crucifix are all connected, theologically and practically.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (detail)

When the rose and lily are painted beside the Virgin, it is reasonable to assume that we are being offered the timeless flowers of love and beauty. Rossetti, however, creates the possibility of a counter-narrative – one which is suggesting that Mary is confined within a pre-determined destiny.  This, the first publicly exhibited picture and the first to reveal itself as a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood construct, shows Mary to be stifled, confined within the oppressive atmosphere of the painting. [v] The novice is pushed into the corner of the canvas, hemmed in by objects and people: the palms and her embroidery table before her; the angel guarding the lily, her virtue and her means of escape; the hefty volumes; her mother’s ample body; her inability to see out of the window; and her father’s turned back outside erecting a further barrier, obscuring her already restricted view.

Meanwhile, the iconic lily stands on the heavy, closed statutes of the three Christian virtues mentioned in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: Spesfides and caritas (hope, faith, and love) [vi] and three of the four cardinal virtues, fortitudotemperantia, and prudentia (courage, temperance, prudence).  

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (detail)

Significantly, in Rossetti’s interpretation, the fourth cardinal virtue, iustitia (justice), is absent, surprising given that Rossetti is known for ‘enlightenment, justice, and mercy’ disliking ‘obtuseness, oppression, injustice and ruthlessness’.[vii] If Rossetti were really extolling the virtues of this scene, then surely justice would be included, even if that meant omitting one of the lesser virtues?  Even though it is widely accepted that his moral sense was somewhat ‘elastic’, he was nevertheless widely regarded as ‘just’.[viii] The absence of justice could be seen, therefore, as deliberately emphasising the binary opposition between the divine prophecy and this all too human tragedy.

A close analysis of a Rossetti drawing created around the same time – Faust: Gretchen and Mephistopheles – highlights several uncanny similarities to The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.  

Comparison of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) (right) with Faust: Gretchen & Mephistopheles (1848)
Pen and ink drawing, 27.3 x 20.6 cm, Private collection.

The German legend tells of how Faust, who has made a pact with Satan, fathers an illegitimate child with Gretchen, a simple, innocent, virginal maid.  A pious Christian, she drowns their child and sacrifices herself to free Faust from Mephistopheles’ power.  The biblical story tells of how God fathers a child with a young virgin via his angelic messenger, outside of mortal marriage.  The child dies to deliver humankind from sin; Mary sacrifices her freedom to God’s purpose and the ultimate promise of eternal salvation.  Both Gretchen and Mary have the promise of their reward in the next life for accepting self-negation in this. The thematic confluence is clear.

Not at all attracted to the idea of renouncing the world, the flesh or the devil, Rossetti has no qualms adapting his original composition of the satanic in Faust for the reimagining of the purity in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Both are divided into vertical thirds.  Mary occupies a similar space to Gretchen; St Anne to Mephistopheles; St Joachim to Faust; the angel to the two child figures (originally two angels); the books are replaced by the gravestone; the palm leaves by the sword.  Both versions are divided in half horizontally by a wall; St Anne turns to Mary, as Mephistopheles turns to Gretchen; St Joachim looks away, as Faust turns his back. 

Rossetti may well have inspired Charles Allston Collins to reflect on these contentious issues when The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was exhibited in the Free Exhibition, Hyde Park Corner (1849).  

Charles Allston Collins
Convent Thoughts (1851)
Oil on canvas, 84 x 59 cm
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In Collins’s Convent Thoughts the tension between active engagement in the human experience and the secluded life of contemplation and devotion is interpreted through another grey-gowned female figure.  Although the painting is commonly interpreted as a pious interpretation of the hortus conclusus convention with the novice’s attention straying ‘from the missal in her hand to the sacred natural beauty that surrounds her’, it is simultaneously a representation of a woman separated from expressing herself as nature intended.[ix] The passionflower may evoke the passion of Christ, but the cut passionflower, held tightly in the hand, against the backdrop of the hidden female body and an impenetrable wall surrounding her prompts us to ponder the nature of a religion that demands such extreme confinement.  Despite the strong theological content of both The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Convent Thoughts, the nature of both women is stunted, emphasised by the unnatural quality of flowers in the former and the novice’s contrast with the abundant growth of flowers around her in the latter.

Seen in this context, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is less an outpouring of religious devotion and more a systematic subversion of dogma by an artist who, by his sisters’ example, understood only too well the cost of self-sacrifice. The tight-lipped pink rose and the unyielding lily are synonymous with the repressed and unnatural virginal figure of the young Mary as she prepares for the inevitable consequences of a pre-determined prophecy beyond her control. As the Chosen One she has no agency. This may be a theological triumph, but it is simultaneously a human tragedy.  

[i] Adam, Abbot of Perseigne in Mariale, quoted in Mirella Levi D’Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance. Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1977), 176-177.

[ii] Ovid, Metamorphoses (London: Penguin, 2004), Introduction, xxix.

[iii] R. Wedgwood Kennedy, The Renaissance Painter’s Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948), 16.

[iv] No. 368 in the Free Exhibition, Hyde Park Corner, late March 1849.

[v] 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is Charity.’

[vi] W. M. Rossetti, Family Letters with a Memoir, 411.

[vii] Ibid, 404.

[viii] D. Mancoff, Flora Symbolica: Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art (Munich & London: Prestel), 2003, 12.