She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, ‘Behold, he is at peace,’ saith she;
‘Alas! the apple for his lips, – the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,-
The wandering of his feet perpetually!’
A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird’s strained throat the woe foretell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.
The title of this poem is derived from Latin literature and translates as ‘Venus, turner of hearts’. Whilst the meaning is said to be one which turns women’s hearts toward virtue, to our ear it seems to suggest something much more earthy and sexual. This is in keeping with the composition of Rossetti’s poem, which is contrived to turn men from fidelity. It is important to remember that word and image played a key role in Pre-Raphaelite art, and as such, we should consider both the poem and the art as being entwined and self -referential. The text of the sonnet was published in the Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1868 and was originally inscribed within the picture on a label in the upper right, however Rossetti removed this in the finished oil as you can see above. The poem talks of apples, lips, and sweetness and is dripping with sexuality. The pattern and texture of the poem portrays the generic, archetypal figure of woman as one rooted in the heritage of Eve (via the inclusion of the apple) but also one who has Pagan roots (through subtle references to classical figures like Helen of Troy or Calypso). Magic and enchantment reign.
The oil itself, begun in 1863 but not completed until 1869, mirrors the poem with its heady, sweet smelling sexual enchantment. Venus Verticordia is the singular example of a nude in Rossetti’s oeuvre and is considered by some, e.g. the Walker Gallery, as being among the first examples which contribute toward a Victorian revival of the nude. The lusciousness of the roses and honeysuckle imply fecundity and natural femininity; one which bursts with colour, texture, and beauty. Classical and Christian references are embedded within the work, in a surprising yet aesthetically successful manner. The Pagan reference to the Cupid figure is set directly alongside a Christian reference to Eve, and the inclusion of a halo makes this nude one of Marian proportions. The significance of flight is a key point, which acts as a bridge between these two polarities. The bird is a winged mediator between the Pagan and the Christian, and he acts as a literal vocal bridge within the poem. The bird can be read as a type of re-imagined angelic body. The butterflies are specifically, and directly placed around the Christian halo, altering the Christian symbol into something more related to light and flight, to the amber haired angel which the work commands we look at. Venus Verticordia is a Pagan Marian icon. She stares out toward us with a serenity that suggests self-contentment, and corresponds to Rossetti’s description of her glance being ‘still and coy’.
In the R.A. notes (by Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti), this coy ‘turner of hearts’ is made more explicit, and she in turn more culpable, through the following description:
All women in the magic of her locks;
And when she winds them round a young man’s neck
She will not ever set him free again.
Interestingly when we compare the highly detailed outer areas of the painting with the perfectly contrasted pale tones of the woman’s flesh, we soon realise that this enchantress is almost hemmed in. She is hemmed in by Rossetti, by nature, perhaps by her nature, by our reading of her as femme fatale and by the male gaze.
It is Venus Verticordia who will not be set free.