“This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect
God’s virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
Dwelt thus in Nazareth of Galilee;
Her kin she cherished with devout respect:
A profound simpleness of intellect
Was hers, and supreme patience. From the knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in duty circumspect.
Thus held she through her girlhood; as it were
10 An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows, and is quiet. Till one dawn, at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all,—yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed;
Because the fulness of the time was come.”
The first sonnet was printed in the Catalogue of the Association for Promoting the Free Exhibition of Modern Art (London: Hyde Park Corner Publishers, 1849) p. 18.
Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849, Tate, London)
The title of the poem matched the painting of the same name (which was catalogue no. 368, and is illustrated above) which was exhibited in 1849 at the Free Exhibition near Hyde Park. The sonnet was attached to the painting, which demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the PRB was present from the beginning. A second sonnet was attached to the frame on a piece of gilded paper. Surtees states both sonnets were printed on the gilded paper, which she suggests was attached to the back of the painting (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonne). Sadly this is not in the Tate archives. In a later reworking of the frame in 1864, both sonnets were inscribed upon the frame.
Examining The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Rossetti’s interest in Christianity is easily apparent. As per the title, the Virgin Mary is shown depicted as a young girl, who is jointly embroidering with St. Anne, her mother. In the background we see her father St. Joachim who is busy in the act of work, pruning a vine. The picture is well executed for a first oil painting, and shows much attention to the symbolism and the placement of the figures; the fact Rossetti considered the finished product worthy of his first PRB exhibition piece suggests he considered its theme and quality of technique illustrative of PRB intention.* Passion, purity, hope, faith and charity are all part of the fabric of the painting.
The second sonnet, below, was only published in 1882, after Rossetti’s death, in Sharp’s DGR: A Record and Study (p. 130). Sharp’s comments suggest that he took his text directly from the frame of the painting, rather than from a manuscript.
These are the symbols. On that cloth of red
I’ the centre, is the Tripoint, perfect each
Except the second of its points, to teach
That Christ is not yet born. 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.
The seven-thorned briar and the palm seven-leaved
Are her great sorrows and her great reward. 10
Until the time be full, the Holy One
Abides without. She soon shall have achieved
Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord
Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son.
The angelic body was represented in Pre-Raphaelite imagery, from the date of their very first exhibition.
* Hunt describes how Rossetti’s, Faust: Gretchen and Mephistopheles (July 1848, Private Collection, Mrs. J. A. R. Munro) was initially considered for Rossetti’s first oil. It seems Rossetti opted instead for the biblical and angelic theme of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. See: W.H. Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 1, p188