Gender and Sexuality - Virtuous women
Created by Amelia Yeates
21 May 2009
This is a learning resource on Gender and Sexuality. This is the fourth of seven parts.
With their tendency to idealise women, Pre-Raphaelite artists often turned to subjects of virtuous women. The idea of the redemptive woman was very popular at the time, especially after John Ruskin’s lecture ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ was published. This called for women to harness their naturally redemptive characters for the good of humankind and to influence their more wayward male companions.
Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’ was another important text with which the Pre-Raphaelites would have been familiar. Rossetti treated the figure of Mary Magdalene in Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee; although she was a sinner Magdalene had long been seen as the archetypal redemptive woman. The intense expression of Rossetti’s Mary has something of the same quality as the woman in Hunt’s Awakening Conscience (Tate collection), also experiencing redemption. The Pre-Raphaelites also depicted female saints, such as Rossetti’s St Elizabeth of Hungary Kneeling with her Companions.
Compare Hughes’oil painting The Annunciation and Burne-Jones’s watercolour The Annunciation.
How is the Virgin represented in each painting and does the artist use traditional symbolism to signify the Annunciation?
In Hughes’ painting, Mary looks meek, which is the traditional way in which she is represented. She has a defensive posture, as does Rossetti’s Virgin in his Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50, Tate collection). Her head is lowered and she looks humbled in front of Gabriel. The painting depicts lilies, which appear traditionally in Annunciation scenes as a symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity, whilst the irises symbolise the communication of a message or idea, having an obvious relevance to the story of the Annunciation.
Victorian audiences were well versed in both religious symbolism and the language of flowers so would have been able to easily read these symbols. Mary is holding a bobbin of thread and has been interrupted weaving. The Angel Gabriel hovers on the threshold of an outdoor and semi-covered space, relating to Mary’s dual role as both earthly figure and mother of the son of God.
Marsh, Jan, Pre-Raphaelite Women. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.
Discuss this collection