Beata Beatrix - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
( Originally Published 1918 )
Questions to arouse interest. What is there about this picture that suggests a mystery? Where is this lady sitting? What has been brought to her? Of what is the dove a symbol? the poppy? To what hour does the sundial point? What can you see in the distance?
Original picture:. National Gallery of British Art, London.
Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Birthplace: Portland Place, London, England.
Dates: Born, 1828; died, 1882.
The story of the picture. Long ago, in the age of chivalry, there lived a beautiful Florentine lady named Beatrice Portinari. A great poet, Dante, has described her to us from her child-hood to her death.
In those days when all true knights served their ladies, and even small boys were required to choose objects of devotion, it was not strange that a boy of nine years should choose a little neighbor girl for this honor. She was only a year younger than he when her father, Folco Portinari, a rich nobleman of Florence, gave a festival in her honor, inviting all his neighbors and friends. Dante went with his father.
Here for the first time he met Beatrice, whom he afterwards described as "the youngest of the angels."
"'People called her Beatrice then," he ex-plains, `without knowing how truly the name belonged to her, for it means `one who blesses.' " The artist, Rossetti, must have been thinking of this when he named his picture "Beata Beatrix," which means "happy or pleasing; one who blesses." Beata sometimes has another meaning—"the elect of Paradise"—and Dante suggests this meaning as he tells us how the people remarked, as she passed, that " she seemed not to be the daughter of a mortal man, but of God." Indeed, he tells us that whoever looked at her was made better, for all ill thoughts must vanish before her,—" the destroyer of all evil, and the queen of all good."
She must have been a fairylike little creature as she moved among her father's guests, dressed in deep crimson, with a few beautiful ornaments which brought out her delicate coloring. At any rate she became the ideal of the small boy, Dante. He became a poet through. this meeting and from that time on wrote verses to her. We probably never would have known there was such a person as Beatrice, if he had not told us about her in his poems. Now she will never be forgotten, for not only the poet. Dante, but the artist Rossetti, made her name immortal.
It was not until nine years after this first meeting that Dante met Beatrice face to face again. She was walking on the street between two older women, and turned to greet him pleasantly. Dressed in white this time, she seemed to him the fairest and most beautiful lady in all Florence.
This meeting had such an effect upon Dante that he declared he felt as if he had reached the "furthest limit of blessedness." Hurrying to his room, he spent hours in thinking of Beatrice; finally he fell asleep and dreamed of her. As soon as he awoke, he commenced a sonnet, which he addressed, not to her, but to his fellow-poets. It was not until later that he ventured to address his verses to Beatrice, usually speaking of her as "my lady."
After each meeting or new thought of Beatrice, Dante wrote his poems, until at last he put them all into a book which he called " Vita Nuova," meaning "new life." He declared that from the time of his first meeting with Beatrice he had begun a new life, and this book would contain the record of it. Here he tells all his in most thoughts and feelings, for in those days it was the fashion for poets to tell of their loves.
So we hear how Dante spent his days and nights thinking of the lovely Beatrice, until his health began to fail and his friends questioned, even taunted him, as to the cause. He did not wish them to know who it was that so affected him, and was wondering how to keep his secret when an accident showed him the way. As he sat in church looking across to where his beloved Beatrice sat unconscious of his presence, his glance was returned by a lady sitting half way between. She thought his glances were for her. She looked around several times, and other people, noticing her, soon decided she must be the lady Dante loved. Dante then decided to use her as a screen, and though he continued to write his verses to Beatrice, he did so in such a way that all believed they were directed to the screen lady.
This did very well for several years, until the screen lady moved to another city. Then Dante chose another screen lady, but she got him into trouble. False rumors spread rapidly and soon the gentle Beatrice heard them. So one day, when she passed Dante on. the street, she did not give him the customary greeting. He was nearly heartbroken, for this greeting was all the recompense he had ever had or hoped to have for his love. He tells how much it meant to him, how kindly it made him feel toward even his enemies, and that it was the inspiration and hope of his life.
A friend took him to a wedding feast at which Beatrice was one of the guests. At the sight of her he grew faint and was obliged to return home. As he passed a group of women, they stopped him and inquired what kind of a love his was that made him numb and speechless in the mere presence of the loved one. He told them that until the day when Beatrice refused it, the end and aim of his love had been "her salutation" ; but now his desire had changed to something that could not fail him: His happiness now lay "in the words which praise my lady."
Is it any wonder then that one so gentle and beautiful as Beatrice, and to whom the attention of all Florence was directed by the adoration of so beloved a poet as Dante, should become a kind of goddess or queen in that city? Dante tells us that people came to the corners of the streets to see her pass. Her companions, too, were honored for her sake, and it seemed as if Beatrice herself was "the only creature in Florence unaware of her own perfections." It gave him the most exquisite pleasure to think that he had helped bring this about.
At the death of Beatrice's father, Dante's grief was almost as deep as for his own father, and he remained near the house in the vain hope that he might comfort his lady in some way.
Shortly after this, Dante became very, ill, and as he thought of death, he realized that some day his beloved Beatrice must die. The thought drove him into a frenzy of despair; and when at last he fell asleep, it was only to dream of her approaching death. This dream proved to be a true omen, for only once more was Dante permitted to see his Beatrice; then one day as he was composing a sonnet to her, the news of her death was brought to him. He was prostrated with grief, and it was some time before he could write again.
Dante was then twenty-seven years old, and left, as he said, "to ruminate on death, and envy whomsoever dies." To console himself he read religious philosophy, and from thinking of Beatrice as a saint upon earth, he began to think of her in heaven in company with saints and angels. And so almost before he knew :it he had started to write his masterpiece, "The Divine Comedy." In this, Beatrice, still the object of his adoration, leads him from circle to circle in Paradise, and for the first time we hear her speak.
It is strange how very little is known of Beatrice from other sources. Beyond the fact of her birth and parentage little is given. Many authorities state she was the wife of Simone de' Bardi, but as many vigorously deny this.
Dante does not mention her marriage, and indeed gives us quite the opposite impression.
Dante has represented his Beatrice as so perfect, so absolutely without fault in every way, that many have questioned whether she was a real woman or an ideal. Perhaps the doubt as to her reality started when people began to ask more about her and her interest in Dante. Living in Florence, she must have known of his devotion, yet we have no way of knowing whether she knew or not. And then we are permitted to see Beatrice only at a distance, and usually surrounded by her body-guard of gentle ladies. We know how she affected other people, the beauty and sweetness of her presence, yet we are never brought close enough to see even the hint of an imperfection of any kind. And the poet himself does not address his poems directly to her, but "to other poetic souls who will understand."
Yet who can read his "Vita Nuova" and fail to be convinced that Beatrice was an actual woman? Here we find her beautiful, gentle, modest, and smiling, walking with others, prayerful in church, weeping at funerals, and merry at festivals. All the little events of her life, and even the peace of her death, are sympathetically told by one who knew her to be real, yet has made her truly ideal.
The "Vita Nuova" was written in Italian, and one of the best English translations was made by Rossetti, who painted this picture as one of the many illustrations for the book. No one could have been more in sympathy with this subject than Rossetti; both because of his great admiration for Dante, and because: he had suffered a similar affliction in the loss of his beloved wife.
Dante sought to prove in verse that death is but passing from one world into another, and Rossetti wished to show Beatrice in that transition stage, or swoon, in which she is about to pass into another life. In his own words Rossetti tells us, "The The picture illustrates the 'Vita Nuova,' embodying symbolically the death of Beatrice as treated in that work. The picture is not intended at all to represent death, but to render it under the semblance of a trance in which Beatrice, seated at a balcony overlooking the city, is suddenly rapt from earth to heaven."
We are supposed to be in an adjoining room in the home of Beatrice, and to be looking out upon the balcony where she is sitting. Her closed eyes, half-closed lips, and listless hands make her appear to be half sleeping, half waking, yet conscious of some heavenly vïsion we cannot see. The dove, crowned with a halo to show that it is a heavenly messenger, brings the poppy to Beatrice. This flower is the symbol of death; the dark heart of the flower stands for mystery and the white petals for purity.
The sundial represents the hour as close at hand. Dante was quite superstitious about the number nine, and in his book refers to that number so often that this picture would not be complete without some indication of it. He was nine years old when he met Beatrice; nine years later he received her salutation; it was usually on the ninth hour that he saw or dreamed of her; and it was at the ninth hour that she passed away.
As we glance away from Beatrice, beyond the balcony we catch a glimpse of the Florence in which she lived, with its river Arno, its bridge, and some of the towers and palaces in the dim distance. The two figures gazing sadly at one another represent Dante and Love. In his "Vita Nuova," Dante always speaks of Love as an actual person appearing to him in different forms. First he appeared as a traveler dressed in coarse clothes; then as a youth in white who came and sat on the edge of his bed and comforted him; and on those rare occasions when Dante saw Beatrice he was always present. Dressed in vermilion in this picture, he stands holding a flaming heart and pointing upward, as if he would beckon Dante to follow. Critics generally agree that the figure of Love in this picture represents the spiritual Beatrice, who beckons Dante to follow as she passes upward. Dante, dressed in scholarly gown, gazes fixedly at the figure as if he would not fail to get the message.
The colors in which this picture is painted add much to its air of mystery. The purplish tints of late sunset linger in the distant view of the city and bring out the golden auburn hair of Beatrice, suggesting a halo made radiant against the twilight distance. Yet Rossetti has been very careful to make Beatrice appear as a real person and not as a vision. To accomplish this, he has made the figure stand out clearly against the brilliant light, yet lost in the half shadows of the balcony, so she appears to be both of this world and of the next. He has represented life and death again in the colors of her dress,—green and purple. She wears a loose-fitting green garment over a purple dress. The bird is a deep rose color. It carries the purplish white poppy to her lap.
This picture of Beata Beatrix is dated 1863, but was not finished until two years later. Nine years afterwards, Rossetti painted a copy of it, adding the meeting of Beatrice and Dante in Paradise. He painted several other copies, but none of them have been considered equal to this first picture. The original was painted in oils and sold to Lord Mount Temple, whose widow gave it as a memorial to the National Gallery, London, where it now hangs.
Rossetti designed nearly all the frames for his pictures, because he liked to show on them some of the things that suggested the picture. He took unusual pains in designing the frame for this painting. On the sides are circles showing clouds, stars, and skies, representing the two worlds. Below the painting he has printed the date of the death of Beatrice, June 9, 1290, and a quotation in Latin from the Bible illustrating the effect of her death upon Florence :
"How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations ! "
Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. Of whom is this a picture? Where did she live? By whom was she made famous? How? Explain the meaning of her name, and the name of this picture. Why were these names appropriate? In what age did Beatrice live? What influence did chivalry have upon Dante? When and where did Dante and Beatrice meet? How old were they? What was the result of this first meeting? Tell about the next meeting and its effect. What is the "Vita Nuova," and why was it written? Tell about the screen ladies. How was Dante punished? What was the end and aim of his love for Beatrice? How was Beatrice regarded in Florence? why? What was Dante's dream? Of what was it an omen? What was the effect of Beatrice's death upon Dante? Why do some people think Beatrice was not a real woman? What is your opinion? Why did Rossetti wish to paint this picture? Does it represent death or life? Where is Beatrice sitting? Describe the picture; its coloring. What part has the number nine in the life of Beatrice? Explain the figures in the background. Where is the original painting? How is it framed?
The story of the artist. Daniel Gabriel Rossetti was the eldest son of Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and Italian exile. Gabriel, for that was the name he was usually called, was born at Portland Place, London, and had two sisters and one brother. He was first sent to a private school, then to King's College School. When he was but fourteen, because of his marked ability to draw he was sent to Cary's Art Academy. Here he did so well that three years later he gained admission to the Royal Academy Antique School.
He was only twenty years old when with some other young artists he started a new art movement which they agreed, half in jest, to call Pre-Raphaelitism. They themselves were called Pre-Raphaelites. When they began to exhibit their paintings, they were very severely criticized and ridiculed; but a popular young art critic of that day, John Ruskin, came to their aid by writing a long letter in which he praised them heartily. This letter was published and turned the tide of popular opinion. Meanwhile, Rossetti was developing his literary talents, his writings being published in the leading magazines of that time.
One day a young artist friend of Rossetti's went with his mother into a millinery shop, where, glancing through an open door, he saw a number of young girls at work. Among them was one who had the beautiful reddish auburn hair which was the favorite color among the Pre-Raphaelites. The young man persuaded his mother to ask the girl if she would pose for him. The girl's name was Elizabeth Siddall, and from posing for this friend she soon became acquainted with other artists, among them, Rossetti. She showed considerable artistic ability herself, and it is said that John Ruskin, wishing her to give up her trade and devote herself to art, promised to buy all the pictures she could paint, if she would study with Rossetti. This delighted Rossetti, who felt more than interested in this new pupil.
Judging from the paintings Rossetti made of her at this time she must have been a beautiful young girl. Besides her good looks she must have had a brilliant mind, for she learned rapidly, and soon became not only a good artist but a writer and judge of good literature. Then she discovered that her education had been much neglected, so with Rossetti's and Ruskin's help she went away to school to perfect herself. She did this because she believed she would then be able to help Rossetti more in his work. When she returned to London, they were married.
Their marriage was a very happy one, but hardly two years had passed when. the young wife died.
During these two years Rossetti was inspired in his work in art and literature by his beautiful wife, and it was at her request that he copied the poems he had addressed to her into a little book which she had given to him for that purpose. Overcome by grief at her death, Rossetti wrapped this volume in his wife's beautiful hair as she lay in her coffin, and so it was buried with her.
Seven years later he was persuaded to secure this book again, and its publication brought him much honor. But he felt much remorse because he had permitted the grave to be opened, and, some very severe and unkind criticisms coming to him at this time, his health began to fail. He found he could not sleep, and although he knew their terrible effects, he commenced taking narcotics. All the rest of Rossetti's life was spent in a constant struggle against them until at last they conquered in his death.
It is not strange that Rossetti should have been interested in Dante and his writings. Rossetti's father was so great an admirer of Dante that he named his son for him, and wrote many articles about him. Rossetti's sister, too, wrote a book about Dante, his life and works, which she called " The Shadow of Dante."
You can easily see how, after the death of his wife, the story of the death of Beatrice would affect Rossetti; and it is little wonder that the Beatrice of the "Beata Beatrix" should resemble his own wife. However, he did not intend this as a portrait of his wife, but only meant to show that love continues after death, and that what men call death is but a swooning into another life. Nearly all of Rossetti's paintings are connected more or less with the tragedy of his own life, and through them we come to understand what that life must have been.
He painted many literary subjects, and among those illustrating the life of Dante and Beatrice are:
" Il Saluto di Beatrice," which represents the meeting of Beatrice and Dante first in. a street of Florence, and then in Paradise.
"Dante Drawing the Angel "—a year after Beatrice's death Dante observed the anniversary by drawing the angel which represented Beatrice.
"Beatrice at the Wedding Feast, Denying her Salutation to Dante."
"Dante's Dream." This is the largest picture Rossetti ever painted.
Other paintings are: "The Blessed Damozel," The Spirit of the Rainbow," "Forced Music," "The Bower Meadow," "The Beloved."
Questions about the artist. Where was Rossetti born? For whom was he named? Of what nationality was his father? Where was Rossetti educated? In what did he excel? What new art movement did he help to start? What was their success? Who was Elizabeth Siddall? How did she happen to study with Rossetti? What did she become? Tell about her life, marriage, and death. What did Rossetti bury with her? When did he recover the book? What caused his ill health? his death? Why did the death of Beatrice appeal to him? Whom did she resemble in this picture? What thought did Rossetti wish to express? What other pictures of Beatrice did he paint.?