Dante Gabriel Rossetti; a translator, illustrator, poet and most importantly for this post, an incredible artist. As one of the founding fathers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he inspired and influenced an entire generation of artists and writers both contemporaries and successive to himself. Dante was born on the 12th May 1828 and he died on the 9th April 1882, leaving behind a wealth of work and a strong legacy that would live on long beyond his own lifetime.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent a lot of time working on English translations of Italian poetry and found himself strongly influenced by the famous Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) with whom he strongly identified. It was Rossetti’s identification to Dante Alighieri that inspired the painting which is the subject of this post.
With that said we’re going to be looking at one piece of work in particular; a painting full of meaning and symbolism, painted in Rossetti’s signature style and telling a powerful story rife with emotion and feeling.
This absolutely stunning piece of narrative artwork holds enough weight to captivate the viewer immediately, enchanting and fascinating, intriguing the viewer to study the painting further and come to a better understanding of the story being told.
Who is this woman and what is she thinking? Who are the strange, out of focus figures in the background? What is the relevance of the dove and the poppy?
We will look at the answers to those questions and more, whilst studying the painting more closely, in conjunction with Dante’s life and mindstate leading up to the creation of such a symbolic and poetic work of art.
The best way to start this investigation is by establishing the main figure in this painting, the entranced woman; looking at who the model was in relation to Dante and who she is portrayed as in the artwork.
The woman in question is Elizabeth Siddal, a model who was drawn and painted extensively by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was herself an artist and poet. Within the ten year period of Dante meeting Elizabeth in 1850, she became his muse and a passionate love affair ensued and in 1860 they married. Dante is said to have produced thousands of drawings and paintings of Elizabeth Siddal, painting her almost exclusively and also denying her from modelling from other members of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Under a lot of stress from an unstable marriage and suffering frequent and serious illnesses, coupled with severe depression and a still birth, Elizabeth Siddal ended up becoming addicted to laudanum; a tincture of opium and a potent narcotic. This addiction ended in Elizabeth’s overdose and death in 1862, which is thought to be a suicide that Dante hid by burning the note; due to the laws on suicide at the time and the scandal that it would have brought on the family.
The date of Elizabeth’s death being in 1862 and the painting being begun in 1863, show that this was a posthumous work, Dante referring to his previous sketches and paintings of Elizabeth in order to create the culmination of his relationship and marriage with his muse.
Dante and Dante
As noted earlier in the post, Dante Gabriel Rosetti strongly identified with the celebrated poet of Florence, Dante Alighieri, to the point of him becoming Rossetti’s lifelong fixation. This idolisation led Rossetti to think of his love Elizabeth much as Alighieri’s love Beatrice, causing her in effect to become an extension of his own obsessive experience of familiarity with Dante.
Rossetti painted various Dante Alighieri related pieces, casting Elizabeth Siddal as Beatrice including: The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice; Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah; and Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation.
It was this link that Rossetti had with Dante Alighieri, and Siddal’s death; which reinforced Rossetti’s connection even more, that led to the painting of Beata Beatrix; the best of Rossetti’s Dante related works and quite possibly the most powerful and enigmatic painting he ever created.
The Painting and Symbolism
Beata Beatrix is one of Rossetti’s most famous works, painted as a memorial after the death of his wife and muse, Elizabeth Siddal. The painting draws a strong parallel by depicting the death of Dante Alighieri’s lover in his autobiographical piece La Vita Nuova (1295); this powerful writing of Dante’s was also Rossetti’s first English translation and was published by him in 1864 in his book The Early Italian Poets.
Rossetti’s intention was to represent her not at the moment of her death, but in a meditative kind of trance, undergoing some form of spiritual transfiguration, perhaps quite akin to how Siddal had appeared in her drugged state whilst under the influence of Laudanum. Aware of her imminent fate but accepting it gracefully and at peace with herself, there is no show of pain or anguish on her behalf, just a transcendent dream or vision like state that she seems to be comfortable to be experiencing.
In the background Dante is depicted as a shadowy figure, discernible as a figure but not detailed enough for the viewer to see any indication of what he is thinking or feeling. Dante looks across at Love, which has been portrayed as an angel wearing red, a colour symbolic of passion; the angel holds a flickering flame in the palm of her hand which signifies Beatrice’s life, soon to flicker out of existence.
Also in the background is the Ponte Vecchio, further alluding to the setting of Dante Alighieri’s story, the city of Florence.
Now for the dove, which despite being painted in red which normally signifies passion or love, Rossetti envisaged the dove as a messenger of death; another sign both of Beatrice’s and Elizabeth’s impending death.The dove is also a symbol of the holy spirit in art and that would explain the halo; as well as this, Rossetti often affectionately referred to Siddal as ‘The Dove’.
The dove also carries a poppy in its beak, the seeds of which are the source of opium; a very significant reference to the death of Elizabeth Siddal who as noted earlier, died as a result of an overdose of laudanum.
The relevance of the sundial is the shadow being cast over the number nine, prophesying the death of Beatrice who died at nine o’clock on the 9th of June, 1290.
All in all, this painting is quite evidently a true and wonderful masterpiece, the story is a fervent display of Rossetti’s feelings as well as his skill with his craft; his intelligence and ability to tell a story through his artwork are displayed phenomenally and leave no room for denial or doubt.
Beata Beatrix is a magnificent example of the type of artwork that appeals to me personally and it has been an enjoyable task to research and meditate upon, in order to write this post.