Symbolism in 'Lorenzo and Isabella'
Two emotions dominate Keats's 'Isabella' - the love of the young couple for each other, and the hatred of Isabella's family. Millais concentrated on these two emotions and used gesture and symbolism to bring out their importance.
In the foreground of the picture, Isabella's brother sits hunched over the table with his foot extended to kick a hound that affectionately nuzzles at his mistress's knee. The sensitivity of this animal's face is in marked contrast to the bared teeth and grimace of his assailant, who, while brutally kicking, is at the same time engrossed cracking nuts. His clenched fists and the shattered shells scattered on the table before him betray the savagery with which he devotes himself to this labour. It is not difficult to see him as the leader of the group which will eventually kill Lorenzo.
The expressions on the faces of the rest of the family are not brutal, but by their exaggeratedly erect postures, they suggest a certain smug satisfaction with their lot.
The figure who is on the left hand side of the table and who holds a glass in front of him is not merely looking at his wine, but also peeping out of the corner of his eye at the lovers opposite. He has not missed the expression of burning passion in the eyes of Lorenzo, nor the demure self- restraining look on the face of Isabella. This tension between the lovers and the family is further elaborated by the use of of more overt symbols.
On the back of a chair to the left sits a hawk eating the white feather of a dove, a traditional symbol of peace. This indicates the impending violence.
On the table there is spilled salt, symbolic of the blood which will later be spilled. The shadow of the arm of the foremost brother is cast across this salt, thus linking him directly with the future bloodshed.
On the maiolica plates on the table it is possible to make out painted scenes of obvious violence. One plate shows David beheading Goliath, another possibly shows Prometheus having his entrails pecked out by an eagle.
In contrast to these indicators of violence, Lorenzo offers a blood orange, a symbol of passion, to Isabella.
Wreathed around the post behind Isabella's head are passion flowers, indicative of her love for Lorenzo, while above Lorenzo's head are roses, also symbolic of love. These are coloured white to indicate the purity of Lorenzo's affections.
Millais has also used the archway behind the lovers to link their figures together. Just as Keats's poetry often relied upon a rich and detailed accumulation of images, so too is Millais's painting rich in detail, and he manages, in this one depicted incident from the poem, to contain a doom-laden foretaste of all the eventual horrors which are to come.