Giebelhausen opens the article with reference to the list of Pre-Raphaelite Immortals, describing it as ‘easily the movement’s most intriguing document’.[1] She describes the fifty seven names as an eclectic mix which is a baffling and enlightening ‘snapshot of hero worship’.[2] It is also worth pointing out, as Giebelhausen does, that the list probably contained other names now forgotten, and we only have Holman Hunt’s edited version to rely upon (and many art historians struggle with relying on anything Hunt says in his memoir!) None the less, ‘Hunt’s editing has stood the test of time’.[3]

Giebelhausen proclaims that the inclusion of biblical figures, not least Christ Himself, is ‘surprising’. She says the list of names ‘demonstrates a firm belief in a kind of secular immortality embodied in human endeavour’. These two points are somewhat difficult to agree with in their entirety. Firstly, I would question why the inclusion of biblical figures would be ‘surprising’ when Church and State were intrinsically linked in this period. Secondly, whilst I would agree with Giebelhausen that the list celebrates human endeavour, I would not interpret the list as a whole hearted devotion to secular achievement. Indeed, the mere inclusion of biblical figures and the position of Christ at the helm, suggests a Christian framework not only supports the possibility of human (secular) endeavour but lies at the heart of any endeavour (religious, poetic, or artistic). The difference in argument is subtle and my change of emphasis is only slight, but the incorporation of secular figures is done so with a Christian emphasis. My reading gives a little more substance to the often ambiguous religious ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite members, and this is important, particularly, as Giebelhausen does say, Christ is awarded the only four star rating.[4] Another interesting point to note is that whilst the list centres upon authors rather than artists, those figures mentioned are predominantly Catholic (e.g. Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dante). Giebelhausen sees the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood name as obvious reason ‘to find an emphasis on medieval Italian authors and visual artists’. The suggestion here seems to be one of taste or interest, rather than on religious ideas. Again, whilst I agree in part there is also the idea that a monastic religious overtone can be found in their chosen name.[5]

Hunt, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection)

Rebellion and reform are obvious characteristics belonging to the figures listed, who can be seen as rebels in their own art and their own time. 1848 was a year of revolution and Britain was no exception; William Michael Rossetti wrote the Brother’s had ‘the temper of rebels: they meant revolt and produced revolution’.[6]

Giebelhausen says the revolutionary avant-garde nature of their work has often been overlooked, although their art is gradually being approached and considered as being more challenging in part due to exhibitions such as the Tate’s 2012 show ‘Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde’. The Pre-Raphaelites, and Ruskin, seemed to have been opposed to what Giebelhausen describes as the ‘synthetic standards of the High Renaissance’.[7] ‘Theirs was a revolt that sought a way back to the sources, to reclaim long-lost purity and artistic sincerity’.[8] I suggest the revolt turned them toward Christianity, toward Catholicity, to consideration of the angelic body; and as Giebelhausen makes clear their interests ‘automatically brought them face to face with religious subject matter’, in particular that of the medieval period.[9] This interest was not theirs alone though, Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art (1848) or the 1847 publication by Lindsay on Sketches of the history of Christian Art. Giebelhausen also references the engravings of the Campo Santo Monumentale in Pisa, which Colin Cruise argues is a key influence on the Pre-Raphaelite drawing style (incidentally, the frescoes in Pisa are littered with angels).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)’, 1849–50
Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate).

For context, Gibelhausen mentions the Westminster Cartoon Competition which offered a chance for regenerative art; the ‘periodical press began to promote religious subject matter as one which could invest contemporary art with the power to inspire, educate and raise the moral standards of the day’.[10] At this point, Giebelhausen introduces their first public unveiling of Pre-Raphaelite art which she sees as broadly representing the themes for the Westminster competition, e.g. ‘English history and literature, and the Bible’.[11]

Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate) and Hunt’s Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection) confirm an interest in early Christian iconography. Typology, symbolism, earnest representation all feature alongside a ‘deliberate stylistic archaisms’.[12] All of which are evident in Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (1849 – 1850, Tate). Dickens laboured assault seems centred around the ‘great retrogressive principle’.[13] The alleged religious implications were especially pressing since several key members of the Oxford Movement, the high church faction of the Anglican Church, had converted to Catholicism during the second half of the 1840s’. We have a tendency to forget or frequently we do not write in any detail about the anti popery riots of the period, triggered in 1850 by the Pope’s reinstatement of the Catholic hierarchy here in England. Gieblhausen’s reference to this helps to clarify the controversy over Millais’ painting was because of its perceived Catholic sympathies (these attacks go some way to explaining why Millais’ other religious works are less controversial in style). Essentially, Millais’ rocking of the boat seems to have been rather unpleasant and perhaps unanticipated by Millais. The role of rebel was not one which Millais was entirely at ease with. Whilst his figures were evidently atypical and potentially controversial, Millais seems not to have been intentionally inviting the wrath of men like Dickens. He had reached back into late medieval art and scrutinized nature, and in doing so he was making a ‘deliberate rebuttal of academic values’.[14] The work was received as ‘an act of defiance’, a ‘rejection of progress, suspected Catholicism’ and in the basest of terms a ‘pictorial blasphemy’.[15] The differing roles of critic and artist are immediately transparent; Millais’ progressive pictorial symbolism was aesthetic in production whereas the critic’s response was religious. Religious expectations and definitions were exceedingly fragile and Millais appears to have been surprised by the level of aggressive criticism the picture received. His own’ religious inclination was later described by his son thus: ‘though he seldom [went] to church…Christianity was with him a living force by which is actions were habitually controlled’.[16]

Like Giebelhausen, I also think the brothers were drawn to depicting earnest sincerity within their art, not necessarily because of their own religious belief per se, but because of ‘the rich symbolic language of Christian iconography – a language that was being rediscovered and explained by authors such as Lord Lindsay and Anna Brownell Jameson’.[17] Within the climate of rediscovery Carlyle was also writing, and his lecture series On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) the spiritual figure of Christ is considered as awe inspiring. ‘But it was not until the mid-1850s that one of them [the Pre-Raphaelites] showed a serious interest in developing a new form of religious painting’.[18] This pursuit of religious iconography and representation was a growing one within Pre-Raphaelite art, and by the time we reach the 1870s we find an extensive codified language within their religious works. Works such as Christ in the House of his Parents or Hunt’s The Light of the World (1851 – 1853, Keble College) are case in points. The Light of the World is considered by Giebelhausen to be a work of ‘vision, a fantasy’ which compresses ‘the supernatural aspects of Christ in the minutiae of the everyday’.[19] Hunt’s use of the moon as halo is particularly interesting, and one can find other examples of indistinct halos, e.g. The Shadow of Death (1870 – 1873, Manchester Art Gallery). Similarly, the role of crucifixion as a bitter annunciation can be found in both The Shadow of Death and Christ in the House of his Parents. Shaw considered The Light of the World ‘a childish conception’ but the work appealed to the public not least because of its ‘soothing allegory of the omnipresence of the Christian faith’.[20] Such soothing allegories were needed as never before, Shaw’s own criticism alludes to the fact there was such a need when he asks how a contemporary of Darwin could have produced such a work. It is likely that it was in spite of people like Darwin that such paintings could exist. It is equally likely that the concept of the angel became such a prominent feature of the intensive Anglican redecoration because of such religious instabilities and anxieties. Hunt’s Evangelicalism upheld the divinity of Christ and from this period onward, Hunt’s works take on a religious intensity.

Authors such as Archbishop Farrar and artists like Hunt, sort to understand and commune with the historical figure of Christ and in this way maintained the Pre-Raphaelite notion of earnestness that can be found in the earliest of their works. A key text of this period, which caused much more controversy than Darwin’s book did, was the Essays and Reviews (1860), edited by John William Parker. Written in part by members of the clergy, this book ‘crystallized the belief of liberal Protestantism and was regarded as the manifesto of the Broad Church movement’.[21] It dealt with issues surrounding historicity, geology, and the supernatural, but avoided answering questions about Christ’s divinity (was He the son of man or the son of God – a kind of extension of the consubstantiation debate which had been much discussed in this period). Writers were considering and mourning the loss of ‘freshness of faith’ which Hunt intended to reinvigorate through works like The Shadow of Death. Divinity and religion were heavily pursued both privately and artistically by Hunt (and also by Farrar). Historical knowledge, experience, and faith were essential aspects of Hunt’s works.

James Collinson ‘The Child Jesus’, 1850
Collinson, The Child Jesus (1850, Tate).

However, as early as 1822, James Marsh, the editor of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, warned that there was a risk of ‘turning all our religion into poetry’.[22] Giebelhausen suggests the Bible’s poetic potential was inadvertently reaffirmed through such scepticism. Authors like Strauss offered the confused and anxious religious thinker an alternative affirming reading of biblical narratives: that of the mythical. Whilst these texts opened up debate, they also gave weight and credence to poetic divinity within the Bible. It is important to remember that Hunt was not the only artist interested in religious narratives, Ruskin claimed ‘the Old and New Testaments were only the greatest poems’ Rossetti knew.[23] Religious iconography occurs within the most curious of places in Rossetti’s oeuvre, e.g. his La Bella Mano (1875, Bancroft Collection, Delaware) as well as much of his poetry. Collinson also produced intense etchings and poems, e.g. ‘The Child Jesus’ which uses a Keble form of typological symbolism.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Mary in the House of St John’, 1859
Rossetti, Mary in the House of St. John (1859, Tate)

Giebelhausen discusses how the brotherhood was attracted to the ‘poetry of the biblical records’ and can be found from the earliest of their works, e.g. Ecce Ancilla Domini![24] Interestingly, Giebelhausen equates this early angelic work with the Aesthetic Movement of the 1860s; and I would suggest Burne-Jones’ The Golden Stairs (1880, Tate) arises from this precise relationship. Examples of this type of poetic are then given, and Rossetti’s poetic work Mary in the House of St. John (1859, Tate) is discussed as a form of biblical poetic, in this case a commemorative one.

It is a great shame that the Dalziel’s intended illustrated Bible did not materialise, but their 1880s Bible Gallery offers a range of styles which encompass the entire spectrum of Pre-Raphaelite interest in religion and spirituality: orientalism, poetry, Nazarene style, symbolism etc. Whilst the Dalziel project never appeared, there was an 1870s edition of The Illustrated Family Bible which William Bell Scott contributed to. Giebelhausen quotes Scott’s passion and resurrection designs as his most successful. The design includes ‘two mourning angels [who] watch over Christ’ and two guards who ‘have not yet realized the miracle’.[25] Another of Scott’s works is an impressive angelic painting called The Rending of the Veil (1869, Private Collection). Publications like The Illustrated Family Bible or The Parables of our Lord (1864) are convincing evidence of the Pre-Raphaelite pursuit in ‘defining religious art for the age’. [26] As Jameson wrote Art which was ‘steeped in that beauty which emanates from genius inspired by faith, may cease to be Religion, but cannot cease to be Poetry’.[27]

The Rending of the Veil
Scott, The Rending of the Veil (1869, Private Collection)

[1] Michaela Giebelhausen,‘The Religious and Intellectual Background’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed., Elizabeth Prettejohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp 47 – 61 (p. 62).

[2] Giebelhausen, p. 62.

[3] Giebelhausen, p. 62.

[4] Giebelhausen, p. 62.

[5] Dr. Joanna Meacock writes about this in her 2001 thesis:

http://theses.gla.ac.uk/1596/1/2001meacockphd.pdf Accessed 12/10/2014

[6] William Michael Rossetti (ed.) Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir, 2 vols. (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1895), vol 1., p. 135

[7] Giebelhausen, p. 63.

[8] Giebelhausen, p. 63.

[9] Giebelhausen, p. 63.

[10] Giebelhausen, p. 64.

[11] Giebelhausen, p. 64.

[12] Giebelhausen, p. 64.

[13] Charles Dickens, ‘Old Lamps for New Ones’, Household Words, I (15 June 1850), pp. 265 – 7

[14] Giebelhausen, p. 66.

[15] Giebelhausen, p. 66.

[16] Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Pre-Raphaelite Art in the Victoria & Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications, 2003) page 138.

[17] Giebelhausen, p. 67.

[18] Giebelhausen, p. 67.

[19] Giebelhausen, p. 67.

[20] George Bernard Shaw, ‘In the Picture-Galleries: The Holman Hunt Exhibition’, The World, 24 March 1886, quted from Mark Roskill, ‘Holman Hunt’s Differing Versions of the “Light of the World”’, Victorian Studies, 6 (March 1963), p. 236.

Giebelhausen, p. 67.

[21] Giebelhausen, p. 69.

[22] Giebelhausen, p. 71

[23] Ruskin, vol. XXXIII, p. 271

[24] Giebelhausen, p. 72.

[25] Giebelhausen, p. 74.

[26] Giebelhausen, p. 74.

[27] Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, vol. 1., pp. xi – xii.

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