Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini (1849- 1850, Tate)

Grieve introduces his article by saying that any suggestion of a link between the Pre-Raphaelite brothers and the Anglican High Church movements, which he calls ‘controversial’, was denied. Quoting William Michael’s objections to ‘the notion that the Brotherhood, as such, has anything whatever to do with particular movements in the religious world – whether Roman Catholicism, Anglican Tractarianism, or what not – is totally, and, to one who formed a link in its composition, even ludicrously, erroneous’.[1]

I myself bulked at this, as presumably Grieve did also. William Michael, ‘one who formed’ Pre-Raphaelitism in part, was as we know an atheist. Fervent in his atheism at that. Rossetti, and Hunt, declared a disbelief in an afterlife in August 1848 but, as Grieve points out, Rossetti took to the monastic suggestion of the term Brotherhood, and was busy painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848 – 1849, Tate). Grieve reads the work as indicative of the people around him, particularly his mother and his sister, both of whom were High Anglicans. Worshipping at Christchurch Albany Street, one of the first nineteenth century Anglican churches to have flowers on its altar.[2] The church was overseen by Reverend Dodsworth who seceded to Rome in 1851, and the Pre-Raphaelite associate and one time fiancé of Christina, James Collinson worshipped there (he later converted to Catholicism, and then converted back again). Another church which Grieve reports the Rossetti’s and Millais as attending was St. Andrew’s, Wells Street where ritual and psalmic chanting was commonplace.

The Girlhood is one of a series of scenes which Rossetti describes as early as 1847 in a poem called ‘Mater Pulchrae Delectionis’, which Grieve recognises as stemming from one of Keble’s poems in The Christian Year (he does not mention which poem although the footnote indicates that it is on page 317). The point Grieve is making relates to the symbolism which he demonstrates as having a Tractarian appeal and, therefore, a Tractarian quality to it. The painting was bought by the Marchioness of Bath, who appointed a Tractarian to the living of the house, with home Christina and her mother would help run a school in Frome (Frome-Selwood). Bennett had left London after the ‘No Popery’ riots in 1851- 1851, which Grieve suggests was caused ‘by his use of elaborate ritualism’ (Bennett was hardly responsible for the riots!)

In 1849, Rossetti planned further pictures of the Virgin’s life including a scene of The Passover in the Holy Family (1856, Tate) which may well have been suggested or triggered by the Tractarian controversy over Transubstantiation.[3] Rossetti’s own language to describe the inscription on the frame of his painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849 – 1850, Tate), was ‘Popish’ (copied from a brass owned by F.G. Stephens).[4] William Michael tells us that in 1853 the inscription was removed to guard ‘against the imputation of Popery’.[5] All of these works post-date The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and yet still show an interest in ‘Popish’ subject matter.

Grieve moves on to discuss the work we refer to as Christ in the House of his Parents or The Carpenters Shop (1849 – 1850, Tate), which Millais exhibited ‘without a title but with a biblical text like the heading to a sermon’.[6] Low churchmen, like Ruskin, disliked the image whereas child baptism and regeneration through the ritual of baptism, were Tractarian in emphasis. Baptism reached a climax in 1850 with the Gorham case which was essentially an example of State interfering in ecclesiological matters. The Gorham case was surrounding the canonisation of a Bishop. The Privy Council, a secular Court, intervened when the Anglican bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts refused to allow Reverend George Cornelius Gorham to become a vicar of Bramford Speke. Gorham’s theology of Baptism, did not conform to the doctrine of the Church of England as he believed that you had to be an adult to accept Christ as saviour. Phillpotts considered this a denial of Article XXVII of the Thirty-Nine Articles. If a Bishop’s authority to teach and uphold Christian doctrine is rejected by the authority of the State, then maintaining the notion that Anglican Bishops were successors to the Apostles became an increasingly tenuous position. Numerous members of the clergy converted to Romanism, and men such as Newman knew that if State could reduce baptismal regeneration, they could influence and dictate other Church matters. The line between State authority and Church authority was becoming blurred.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)’, 1849–50
Millais, Christ in the House of his Parents (1849, Tate)

Christ in the House of his Parents emulates many Tractarian themes, e.g. the well represents a font, the table an altar (similar also features in Millais’ Mariana (1851, Tate)), the covering of a woman’s head, and the sheep recall the laity (or worse a means of the clergy maintaining authority over the laity). It was this year that Millais had met Thomas Combe who was heavily invested in the Oxford Movement (Combe became a major collector of Pre-Raphaelite work, hence the collection in the Ashmolean). Newman officiated at Combe’s wedding in 1840, and Millais referred to him as ‘the Early Christian’. Mariana was produced whilst Millais was staying with Combe, as was Collins Convent Thoughts both of which Ruskin wrote about in The Times, 13th May, 1851. Grieve ends his article with reference to Millais’ A Huguenot…abruptly claiming that for ‘the Academy audience who saw the picture in 1852 there could be no question as to which side Millais belonged’.[7]

I suggest that there is continued ambiguity about the Pre-Raphaelite relationship with Anglicanism, and Christian practice.

[1] William Michael Rossetti , His Family Letters, with a Memoir Vol I (London: 1895), p. 134

[2] L.M. Packer, Christina Rossetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963) p. 6

[3] William Michael Rossetti , ed., Preraphaelite Diaries and Letters (London: 1900), p. 217

[4] F.G. Stephens: Correspondence, Bodleian Library, Oxford, M.S. Don. E.75

[5] William Michael Rossetti, ‘Notes on Rossetti’, Art Journal, XLVI (May 1884), pp. 151

[6] Alistair Grieve, ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood & the Anglican High Church’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 111, No. 794 (May, 1969) pp. 292-295, p. 294

[7] Grieve, p. 294

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