'Sibylla Palmifera', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait painting of a young woman with long red hair and red clothing

Oil on canvas, painted about 1865-70, 98.4 x 85cm, National Museums Liverpool (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight)

The sibyl, or ancient prophetess, of the title bears the palm of victory for her beauty, or perhaps she confers it on the viewer who can appreciate such beauty.

In contrast to the heady sensuality of 'Lady Lilith' (or 'Body's Beauty'), this painting represents the more mysterious 'Soul's Beauty', surrounded by symbols of love, death, and fate. These include roses and blind cupid (love), poppies and a skull (death), butterflies (the human soul) and a carved sphinx (mystery).

By 1866 Rossetti had written a sonnet to accompany the picture. It was later known as 'Soul's Beauty' and was juxtaposed with the sonnet 'Body's Beauty' that went with 'Lady Lilith'. The sonnet does not present spiritual beauty as being without human passions, as it was in some other interpretations of the time.

'Soul's Beauty'

Under the arch of Life, where love and death
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
Beauty enthroned; and through her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
The sky and sea bend on thee, - which can draw,
By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.

This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
Thy voice and hand shake still, - long known to thee
By flying hair and fluttering hem, - the beat
Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!