William Michael Rossetti opens this essay by posing a question of Ruskin’s: ‘How far Fine Art has, in all or any of the ages of the world, been conducive to the religious life’? Rossetti considers Ruskin to be fair in his examination of the question and with no prejudgement of pronouncing Art as the favourite.
‘The foremost branch of this question would of course concern itself with art professedly religious’. Rossetti then, somewhat facetiously it seems, proposes that many enquirers could take up distinct periods of art to discuss the issue. What Rossetti proposes to examine in his essay is a rather more succinct question: ‘whether the artistic feelings and sympathies of a Protestant people of the nineteenth century are best met by a typical or by a narrative expression of religious subjects; and whether, in the narrative expression, strict accuracy of national type and accessory should be adhered to’. The second half of this sentence suggests Rossetti, renowned atheist, has, unlike Ruskin, already chosen his answer.
Rossetti makes clear that ‘although writing artistically, we do not profess to speak of the religious but simply of the ‘artistic feelings and sympathise’ engaged in this question’. It is obviously necessary to point out this bias, despite its unashamed declaration. He does acknowledge that artistic feelings when in reference to a religious subject must ‘involve an exercise of the religious feelings as well’. His position is based around the premise that a believer (note the word there!) could not be in thorough artistic sympathy with a work ‘felt to be an inferior religious expression of a common faith’, unless they were purely responding in formalist terms.
As T.S. Eliot thinks of Pater or Ruskin, so too does Rossetti when he says that an artist to a great extent exhibits or represents ‘the tendencies of that age or country, mental and moral’. Rossetti says that the art of the two years prior to his writing offer an opportunity to examine the existing schools of art. The Paris Universal Exhibition shows, he says, the tendency was towards naturalism, and although Rossetti acknowledges commercial factors may be one influence in this, he hopes ‘accord and preference’ may also be another. Rossetti mentions German artists, although he doesn’t name any, as being the only class to exhibit itself to the ‘typical’ (this is the third time Rossetti uses the word typical, although he offers no definition. The best I can glean is that it relates to ‘Individualism’). Naturalism applies a prevalence of narrative representation.
Rossetti identifies two ‘distinctive characteristics of protestantism’ (note Rossetti uses a small ‘p’):
- The assertion of the right of private judgement (or Rossetti rather cynically suggests this is a matter only for the individual to resolve with God alone)
- Reverence for the Bible.
When combined, these two characteristics predispose someone ‘to receive gladly any conscientious and heartfelt representation of scriptural history’. This exchange does not place or alter the Bible in anyway, and makes no demand upon the role of private judgement dependence upon the artists’. Narrative is the arbiter appealed to both by viewer and artist, and where (religious) things don’t accord with the viewer, the artist can easily be blamed. Private judgement can then be easily reasserted.
Rossetti views the nineteenth century, and he reiterates that it is only that period which concerns him, as an ‘eminently positive’ rather than material world. For Rossetti, the ‘dogmatic subtleties’ of theologians do not impact the general person, and religion is, he claims, ‘more a matter of conduct and of the inner life than a thing expressible in a formula or a proposition’. This view accords very much with modern day thinking and is representative of culturally acceptable modes of behaviour, such as kindness which embraces a Christian ideal not because it is Christian but because it is a socially advantageous trait as opposed to being a religious trait. Although Rossetti adds a sentence expressing caution in boldness, he says quite clearly that ‘religious life, where one finds it, is less sure than of old to unite outward form and observance with the worship in spirit and in truth’.
Rossetti then goes on to suggest that those who respond well to religious art which is either typical or narrative are likely to do so because they are the type to dwell on art generally. Those that don’t dwell are likely to experience coldness, not because of the subject or adeptness of the image, but because of the ‘hastiness of the age’. Rossetti concludes that in order to impress the men of the day, an artist must ‘hold to the direct fact’.
Rossetti then turns to the second issue at stake: whether, in the narrative expression, ‘strict accuracy of national type and accessory should be adhered to’. He arranges his discussion into ‘traditionalists’ and ‘naturalists’.
The first and most significant form of sacred art has to be its ‘sacred impression’. If this is not achieved, it has failed as a piece of sacred art. However a work is designed, whether it is structured around literal truth (e.g. such as Hunt attempted in The Scapegoat) or not, these things must contribute to its sacred quality. Falsification is a risk if the end result departs from its intention.
Traditionalists, such as Raphael whom Rossetti picks upon, dress their figures in costumes which were never worn and add ‘a bit of Judaism here for the ‘characteristic’ heads’…and an entirety of nothingism’. The resulting effect of a traditionalist religious work misses the mark, ‘whole thing is dead, and worse than useless’, declares Rossetti. Truth remains absent and sympathy is unable to be commanded. It is possible to command respect qualifies Rossetti (presumably he does not intend to entirely overturn Raphael’s position within the canon): but he wants the public to push themselves beyond the overtures of Raphael and other traditionalists and not just accept pro forma. ‘The worst we wish him [the traditionalist] is that he may soon become a tradition’.
In contrast to the traditionalist, ‘The naturalist has no model except nature’. But Rossetti ascribes greater choice to the naturalist. Whilst basing himself on nature, he has to ask himself whether he will accede to the demands of his time, or languor in the details of authenticity of that which he observes. The pre-Raphaelite art of the fourteenth and fifteenth century was ‘a living art’. Rossetti’s subject suggests the artist utilised his own simple circumstances to feel the reality of his subject which seems a slight contradiction of his previous parameters.
The next paragraph appears to be a comment upon Ruskin (possibly), although Rossetti maintains anonymity. He suggests the unaccommodating writer may think artists follow their principles to their ultimate ends and in doing so, are unable to have a living sacred art until they act as those who created such Florentine art did. There is, as Rossetti admits, some truth at the bottom of this prescription.
Rossetti concurs that the sacred art previously created in Italy was ‘the truest we have yet seen’ but Rossetti takes issue with the conclusion. As we shall see.
It is in the motivations of the artist that the two men’s views diverge. The medieval artist worked without arrière-pensée (without concealed thought) and produced works potentially without regard or accuracy to costume. ‘Now the case is quite the reverse’. Time and circumstances may affect the accuracy or significance of such details but there needs to be ‘some exercise of discretion’ in this matter. In comparing the medieval viewer with that of his contemporaries, Rossetti finds the Victorians to be demanding, suggesting they would not accept ‘a complacent conscience’ in these matters.
Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 1789) is quoted as an artist who has missed religious feeling, despite creating sufficient naturalist prototypes. Rossetti even goes so far as to say he hopes to see works of similar form, although of ‘nobler spirit’. Should an artist find himself in close proximity to ‘the scenery and detail of the biblical regions at the present day – his principle will prescribe these as his material’. Embedded within this sentence is the suggestion that Sacred Art may be achieved with an attempt at accurate naturalism and attention to the ‘nobler spirit’. An artist must be mindful of ‘missing the naturalism of essence’ if he is to be successful.
Rossetti’s final paragraphs suggest something what on the face of it seems absurd: an artist should ‘seek for the reality of his sacred theme’. Is this the conflict of a man with a cultural mind upon the religion of his times, of his childhood, but not of his heart? Is this the unfaithful faith of the author? It certainly seems an oxymoron to find something both real in the sense of tangible, and yet also immaterial and sacred. Nonetheless, Rossetti says that this pursuit will deliver ‘the highest ideal of sacred art for the day wherein we live’ and a ‘most noble truth when mastered’.
Images via Wikipedia and National Galleries Scotland
 William Michael Rossetti, ‘The Externals of Sacred Art’, Fine Art, Chiefly Contemporary: Notices Re-Printed with Revisions (London: Macmillan, 1867), pp. 40 -49 (p. 40).
 Rossetti, Fine Art, p. 41.
 Ibid. See also T.S. Eliot, ‘Arnold and Pater’, The Bookman, Vol.72, No. 1 (Sep., 1930), pp.1-7
 Ibid., p. 43
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Ibid., p. 45
 Ibid., p. 46.
 Ibid., p. 47
 Ibid., p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 49 – 50.