by Sarah Baur
The British painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a dominant member of the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists founded in London in 1848 with the aim of reforming English art. The group rejected the academically erudite painting traditions that Raphael and his contemporaries modeled on and turned back to the manner of the Italian Quattrocento. They drew their inspiration primarily from medieval sagas and literature by national poets such as William Shakespeare and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The group established itself as one of the most influential national art movements, and their choice of subject matter was still adopted by later artists.
Rossetti's work Beata Beatrix was created between 1864 and 1870 from sketches by his wife Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Siddal, who committed suicide in 1862. Lizzie had been a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites at the time and had been portrayed by John Everett Millais, among others, for his Ophelia.
Rossetti created a memorial to his late wife with Beata Beatrix, in which he stages her in a devotional painting as Beatrice, from Dante Alighieri's poems La Vita Nuova, contemplating her own death. Beatrice also dies in these partially autobiographical works, in which Dante processed his unrequited love and grief for her.
Rossetti's painting depicts the transcendent moment between two states, the point of transition between life and death. The trance or dream-like sequence is emphasized by the almost misty veiled surroundings of the pale protagonist, who herself appears as if in ecstasy by her posture, closed eyes and slightly open mouth. As the artist himself explained, "Beatrice is visibly raptured into heaven, virtually seeing through closed eyelids [...]". The rapture into heaven is also symbolized in the painting by a red dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which flies up to Beatrice's lap and is even marked by a small halo. In its beak it carries a white poppy, which is generally a symbol of both sleep and death. At the same time, there is also a reference in it to the death of Elizabeth, who took her own life by overdosing on laudanum. The sundial in the painting next to Beatrice points with a shadow to her time of death nine o'clock (on June 9, 1290). On the right in the background is the mourning Dante who turns his gaze to the side, where there is an angelic personification of love in a red robe. In her hand a heart glows in flames, demonstrating the pain and intensity of the moment. The red in the robe of love as well as in the feathers of the dove are expressions of passionate feelings and evoke a certain warmth despite the melancholy of the event. So does the sunlight that captures in the background in a bright glow a bridge that is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, to recall the setting in Dante's story. The sun's rays still shine behind Beatrice, framing her with a golden glow that once again visualizes the moment of transcendence.
By aesthetically staging the poetic descriptions of his namesake Dante, Rossetti was able to give expression to his own pain and grief for his love, perpetuating a venerable memory of Elizabeth Siddal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Beata Beatrix
Oil on canvas, 1864 - 1870, 86.4 x 66 cm, Tate Britain, London