2.2.3 Religion

Since her own era, Christina Rossetti’s devout Christianity has often been seen as a characteristic that divides her from the other, avowedly non-Christian, members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. This belief persists despite the distinctly religious “atmosphere” of much of the work produced by both generations of Pre-Raphaelites: its use of biblical images and typology; of religious figural language; and, more especially and pervasively, of medievalist backgrounds and settings that were seen by their early audiences to have clearly devotional, if not dangerously “Romanist,” associations.

When discussing Pre-Raphaelitism as an historical movement, we must remember that the first brotherhood was inspired largely by the sacramental aesthetic articulated by Ruskin in volume 2 of Modern Painters, and that — regardless of their personal religious beliefs — the artistic practices of the poets in the second brotherhood in many ways extended the artistic precepts of the first brotherhood. George Landow properly reminds us that the Pre-Raphaelites “read not only the first volume of Modern Painters, which emphasized truth to nature, but the second volume, which contained Ruskin’s theories of beauty and imagination”. Both generations produced works that rely upon the careful presentation of natural detail in order to convey transcendental Truth — hence, perceptions of their “aesthetic mysticism.” — Dante and Christina Rossetti are, of course, the crucial figures in maintaining this continuity.

During the year before Ruskin’s pamphlet was published, seven poems by Christina Rossetti appeared in The Germ. (There were two poems in the January issue; three in the February issue; and two in the March number, retitled Art and Poetry, Being Thoughts Toward Nature, Conducted Principally by Artists.) The brethren’s apparent receptivity to her work suggests that they perceived no radical disjunction between the “sacramental” values her poems displayed and their own aesthetic principles. Indeed, if Sussman’s statement of the brotherhood aesthetic is correct, and if all the brethren had accepted Ruskin’s aesthetics with his own soul-felt sincerity, there would have been no discrepancy. After all, Dante Rossetti was perennially fascinated by religious typology and iconography; James Collinson, Christina’s sometime fiancé, was, as it turned out, inalterably Roman Catholic;  Holman Hunt was as obsessively devout as Christina herself; art theorists like John Tupper who wrote for The Germ shared her own and Ruskin’s sacramental vision of the world; and all of the brethren were devoted Ruskinians, regardless of their religious dispositions.

As we have seen, late nineteenth-century reviewers frequently observed that Christina Rossetti’s devout religiosity distinguished her from the other Pre-Raphaelites. Such commentators, appear to have forgotten the early, ostensibly sacramental work of the first members of the brotherhood, who were not only painters, but also poets and self-proclaimed art theorists as well. The emphasis of reviewers like W J. Courthope upon the “literariness” the “common antipathy to society,” and the aestheticism “the atmosphere of… materialistic feeling [that] pervades the poetry” — is not surprising in light of the work published by Morris, Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti after 1858.

Such a conclusion is distant indeed from Ruskin’s insistence, during his 1853 Edinburgh lectures, that the  Pre-Raphaelites were in the process of rehabilitating contemporary art, restoring it to the heights of spirituality and truth that characterized painting during the late medieval period and the early Renaissance. With the single exception of work by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PR.B.), he asserted, the great and broad fact which distinguishes modern art from old art … is that all ancient art was religious, and all modern art is profane…. That is to say, religion was its first object; private luxury or pleasure its second…. For all modem art . . . private luxury or pleasure is its first object; religion its second…. Anything which makes religion its second object, makes religion no object. God . . . will not put up with … a second place…. He who makes religion his first object, makes it his whole object: he has no other work in the world than God’s work.

Whichever view of Pre-Raphaelitism a reader or viewer adopted, the inalterable fact remained that most early PRB pictures were occupied with what William Michael Rossetti termed “Christian Art Design” or the “sacred picture”.

The transition from the sacramentalism of Pre-Raphaelite painting, poetry, and aesthetic theory during the period 1848-53 to the aestheticism of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite poets hinges upon the avant-garde techniques and habits of mind adopted by both generations. As Herbert Sussman has observed, the early brotherhood “effort to restore … the authentic tradition in sacred art” required “a rejection of the artistic tradition offered by established institutions.” But, “once the religious motivations dissolved, the sense of opposition remained, to be passed on through Rossetti to Morris, Swinburne, and the aesthetic movement”. With these historical matters dear, then, Christina Rossetti can be seen not only as the “Jael who led the Pre-Raphaelite hosts to Victory” with the recognition accorded her 1862 volume of poems, but also as the poet who, in the pervasive Tractarian tendencies of her poetry, remained true to the topic, the habits of mind, and the ostensibly sacramental aesthetics of first-generation Pre-Raphaelitism.

SWEET DEATH

The sweetest blossoms die.
And so it was that, going day by day
Unto the church to praise and pray,
And crossing the green churchyard thoughtfully,
I saw how on the graves the flowers
Shed their fresh leaves in showers,
And how their perfume rose up to the sky
Before it passed away.

The youngest blossoms die.
They die and fall and nourish the rich earth
From which they lately had their birth;
Sweet life, but sweeter death that passeth by
And is as though it had not been:—
All colors turn to green;
The bright hues vanish and the odors fly,
The grass hath lasting worth.

And youth and beauty die.
So be it, O my God, Thou God of truth:
Better than beauty and than youth
Are Saints and Angels, a glad company;
And Thou, O Lord, our Rest and Ease,
Art better far than these.
Why should we shrink from our full harvest? why
Prefer to glean with Ruth?*

Published in The Germ under the pseudonym “Ellen Alleyn”
*Ruth’s piety and moral integrity were rewarded by God with the gift of faith and an illustrious marriage
whereby she became the ancestress of David and Christ.

Since my point of view this poem is a mixture between the appreciation of the world’s physical beauty and expression in lush images  and a religious devotion. This poem reflects the “aesthetic mysticism” related to Pre-Raphaelitism Brotherhood because at the end there is a conscious awareness of an ultimate divinity or spiritual truth, God, through direct experience or instinct. Moreover,it’s a wonderful description of the nature (sweetest, fresh, colors, youngest, bright, etc.), so Christina Rossetti is dealing with the beauty of nature.



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