Considering that this site’s raison d’être revolves around flowers, any exploration of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s flowerless Proserpine might appear to be counter-intuitive. The haunting figure of Proserpina (Persephone in Greek legend or Proserpine according to Rossetti’s anglicised spelling) occupied Rossetti for more than a decade, from 1871 until his death in 1882. If Rossetti had an obsession it was surely the creation of eight or more versions of this same subject. Its final incarnation was begun in September 1881 and completed a few days before Rossetti’s untimely demise on Easter Sunday 1882.
The Proserpine legend recounts Pluto’s abduction and violation of his niece, a poor innocent girl from the ‘flowery carpet of Tyrian purple’ where spring is eternal. A lurid tale of sexual transgression, the fourth-century Latin poet Claudian recalls that Proserpine was picking flowers at Venus’s bidding in the vale of Henna in Sicily, when she was borne away in a winged chariot from the ‘plain, with gentle swell and gradual slopes’ which ‘rose into a hill’, ‘issuing from the living rock gushing streams bedewed their grassy banks’ (the archetypal locus amoenus and simultaneously a glaring metaphor for Proserpine’s youthful body).
Here Rossetti paints the moment of Proserpine’s temporary re-emergence from the Underworld, stepping into a ‘wind-withered New Year’, a pale and brooding figure.[i] Her physical body is sculptural, embodying the Classical ideal, her shimmering drapery falling around her like water rippling over petrified flesh. The fluidity of her robe is spectral while the pungent wisps of incense fill our senses with the scent contradictorily associated with purgation, eroticism, contrition, sensuality, sin, and redemption. The light dawning in the background of the painting only serves to heighten the sombre shadows of Proserpine’s endless destiny.
Notably, two of the three traditional natural attributes of Proserpine, the daffodil and the narcissus, are conspicuous by their absence in Rossetti’s painting. Perhaps Rossetti chose to exclude flowers to avoid any suggestion that Proserpine was somehow complicit in her fate. Ceres, her mother, curses the ‘guilty flowers’ for lulling her daughter into a false sense of security, and no doubt, for being the symbol of sexual initiation, so eagerly and enthusiastically picked in all innocence. Rossetti, though, has no mind to mediate, clearly demonstrating that the fruit of this encounter is not of Proserpine’s making. She is silenced and subjugated, violated and condemned to a living death. Rossetti surely invites us to consider how we respond to her confinement within the frame of a patriarchal culture which allows and encourages injustice to prevail: a culture that defines Woman purely in terms of her sexual attractiveness.
The third attribute traditionally associated with Proserpine , the pomegranate, serves to highlight the psychological aftermath of the sexual act leading to her demise, with Rossetti highlighting the personal drama of negative transformation. The pomegranate, the fatal fruit of the flower, ‘the partaking of which in Hades …has precluded herself from returning to earth’,[ii] has its etymology in the ‘apple having many seeds’ and resonates in our imagination with the apple in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Rossetti is thought to have originally conceived the notion of a fallen or latter-day Eve, complete with an apple. As early as 1872, he refers to ‘that narrow upright picture with the apple’, but within a few weeks he has started work on ‘a picture … from the tall upright drawing you know of Janey with an apple (a pomegranate I shall probably make it.’) He sourced the more exotic fruit from Treffry Dunn, who acquired pomegranates for him ‘in the market at about 6d apiece’. Clearly, it was not sufficient for Rossetti merely to cast Proserpine as the fallen woman with the conventional apple as her trope for the exposed pomegranate fruit, round with fertile seeds, reflects Proserpine’s fecundity in a way that would not be otherwise possible. It is as if the absent flower echoes the silent voice of the Unseen, its eloquence of absence revolving around qualities which are ‘at once timeless and immediate, fleeting yet permanent, there but not there’.[iii] The fact that the flower is spent, that it has already turned to fruit and that fruit is over-ripe, reflects its synonymous relationship with Proserpine: the deflowered maiden, like the pomegranate flower, has already fallen from the tree.
Although Proserpine dominates the canvas, the pomegranate and her lips share the role as central protagonists. They are connected but disassociated body parts, reflecting what Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock might identify as Rossetti’s fetishistic obsession with sexual difference.[iv] Proserpine’s physicality is absolutely central to his proposition. Rossetti’s gaping cut into the pomegranate flesh and Prosperpine’s luscious lips are the only crimson accents in the painting, and when combined with her luxuriant hair flowing loosely about her shoulders – ‘an index of vigorous sexuality, even of wantonness’,[v] their combined synergy is overtly suggestive.
Rossetti was already too familiar with the polysemous resonance of the fruit, having introduced two into his 1852 watercolour, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante. This was reputedly inspired following the 1839 Podestà chapel discovery of the Bargello fresco, possibly painted by Giotto or his school to include the figure of a youthful Dante holding what appears to be an outline of a pomegranate branch. Rossetti’s curious watercolour imaginatively recreates the scene of the fresco’s creation, combining two literary allusions he knew well. First, occupying the majority of the page, a passage from the Purgatorio (XI, 94-99) and second, in the lower right triangle, a passage from Vita Nuova. Dante, sitting on an elevated platform, gazes down at the beautiful Beatrice below, as she modestly walks past in procession with her eyes downcast, holding a flame in her left hand and, perhaps a psalter or hymnbook in her right. Here, we have two distinct worlds – the patriarchal sphere of the revered artist gazing longingly towards the object of his affection and the subsumed but worthy figure of the redheaded virgin, whose attention he desires.
He pays little regard to the fruit in his hand as he absentmindedly slices into the delicate skin to reveal the crimson fruit below, conjuring images of his descent into hell (The Inferno). These predicaments are encapsulated within Proserpine’s depiction and, by implication, within the pomegranate transferred from Dante’s hand to her own. These similarities are particularly revealing when we consider the resonance of the fruit’s metaphorical qualities.
According to Mirella Levi D’Ancona in her extensive anthology of The Garden of the Renaissance. Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, the pomegranate has multivalent metaphorical qualities. It was frequently employed to celebrate the notion of Christian Resurrection as in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate When pagan beliefs were syncretised into the Christian religion it became associated with the chastity of the Virgin Mary, the blood of Christ in his Passion, Mary Magdalene, the Elect in Heaven, the Martyrs, and the Apostles. Then again, due to its association with Proserpine, its pagan symbolism attributed to the hope in immortality.[vi] As a result, long before the pomegranate had Christian attributes, it and its seeds became symbolic of fertility, fecundity and lust. In Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, Dante appears to be reflecting on the immortality of his love for Beatrice while illustrating the vigour and physicality of his desire by cutting into the fruit.
A second pomegranate lies alongside a red rose within a delicately and purposely folded white cloth on the platform, all strategic placements reflecting Dante’s pre-occupation. In Proserpine’s case the lone piece of fruit emphasises her alienation, separated not just from the world she once knew, but even more significantly alienated from the person she once knew – her very essence now severed in two.
The mirroring we can see between Dante’s pomegranate and Proserpine’s beleaguered fruit, may also be extended to another familial fleshly outpouring by Rossetti’s younger sister, Christina. Her curious sing-song verse, part fairy tale, part erotic parable, Goblin Market, apparently devoid of ulterior meaning,was written while she was a volunteer at the St Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women in Highgate.
In this, Christina details how virginal Laura falls victim to the goblins’ luscious globes of orchard fruit, including ‘the pomegranates full and fine’. Laura, the Fallen Woman, is alienated from her previous existence when she partakes of the goblins’ juicy cornucopia of fruity produce. Dante Gabriel knew this work well, contributing two illustrations to its first edition, one of which, positions a pomegranate with a slice removed at the level of Laura’s lips, similar to that seen in Proserpine.
She is forsaking an intimate part of her body in exchange for the goblins’ enticing juice:
She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
The pomegranate in Goblin Market symbolises Laura’s downfall at the hands of the ravenous goblins. In Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, Beatrice passes unscathed, her purity intact, although the pomegranate in Dante’s hand is ravaged in her stead, and Dante’s unspoken desire is reflected in the positioning of the pomegranate and red rose at his feet. The pomegranate in the painting of the underworld goddess, Proserpine, embodies her rape and the consequences of that violation. In all three instances, Rossetti deftly manipulates the fruit of the flower to be a substitute for the female body. In this way, Rossetti does so much more than reproduce ‘an … effective fusion of ageless beauty and sensuous immediacy’.[vii] By creating an intricate study of the natural world as an intimate extension of Woman, he represents sexual desire, and with it, the consequences of intimate possession at any cost. In this way, Rossetti demonstrates the profound injustice of condemning women to a life they would not have chosen for themselves, simply because they were deemed to be ‘ripe for the taking’.
[i] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, For “Spring” by Sandro Botticelli (In the Accademia of Florence), in Collected Works, 352, line 1.
[ii] Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Frederic George Stephens, 10 August 1875. In Fredeman, Correspondence, vol. 7, 67-71 (letter 75.93).
[iii] Professor H. Wu, Reading Absence Lecture Series (2012), Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge.
[iv] See Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock, “Woman as Sign in Pre-Raphaelite Literature: The Representation of Elizabeth Siddall,” in Vision & Difference. Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, ed. Griselda Pollock (London & New York: Routledge, 1994), 91-114.
[v] E. F. Gitter, “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination,” PMLA 99, no. 5 (1984): 950. See also J. B. Bullen, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Mirror of Masculine Desire,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 21, no. 3 (2008): 335-36.
[vi] Lucia Impelluso, Nature and its Symbols, trans. Stephen Sartarelli (Los Angeles: J. Paul Gerry Museum, 2004), 145.
[vii] Alicia Craig Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1989), 17.