'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Painting showing two woman with halos seated

Oil on canvas, dated 1849, 83.2 x 65.4cm, Tate.
Bequeathed by Lady Jekyll 1937

Rossetti regarded the Virgin Mary as the highest type of female virtue. His first exhibited painting depicts her as a girl seated with her mother St Anne. Mary is embroidering a lily, tended by a child-angel. Mary's father St Joachim prunes a vine. In the background is the Lake of Galilee.

Some of the main symbols include:

  • the lily for purity
  • the vine for the Truth
  • the dove for the Holy Spirit
  • the lamp is a symbol of piety
  • the rose is associated with the Virgin
  • the books, each a different colour, represent the three theological virtues and three of the four cardinal virtues (Justice being omitted) - gold for Charity, blue for Faith, green for Hope, buff for Prudence, white for Temperance and brown for fortitude).

There are also references to the future Passion of Christ, such as the red cloth and the trellis forming a cross.

Rossetti explained the symbolism in two sonnets, now written on the frame.

This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect
God's Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
Was young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Her kin she cherished with devout respect:
Her gifts were simpleness of intellect
And supreme patience. From her mother's knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in duty circumspect.
So held she through her girlhood; as it were
An angel-watered lily, that near God
Grows, and is quiet. Till one dawn, at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all, - yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed;
Because the fulness of the time was come.

These are the symbols. On that cloth of red
I' the centre, is the Tripoint, - perfect each
Except the second of its points, to teach
That Christ is not yet born. The books (whose head
Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said)
Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich:
Therefore on them the lily standeth, which
Is Innocence, being interpreted.
The seven-thorned briar and the palm seven-leaved
Are her great sorrows and her great reward.
Until the time be full, the Holy One
Abides without. She soon shall have achieved
Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord
Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son.

Rossetti's mother modelled for St Anne and his sister Christina for Mary. The bright colour and angular quality made this picture look startlingly archaic and different from other Victorian paintings.