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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY IN D.G.

ROSSETTI'S EARLIEST
PAINTINGS
Author(s): LAURA L. DOAN
Source: Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Winter 1988), pp. 471-483
Published by: Penn State University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178446
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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE


ICONOGRAPHY
IN D.G. ROSSETTFS EARLIEST PAINTINGS

LAURA L. DOAN

Stetson University

TThe earliest critics of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's first two ma-

jor oil paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and

Ecce Analla Domini (1849-50), focused on technique almost to


the exclusion of any other considerations.1 Art historians now
realize that because Rossetti placed more importance on symbolic content, a concern that often led to a lack of artistic control in such areas as perspective, any critical assessment based
on technical achievement alone is inadequate. In general, recent criticism either situates these paintings within the larger
context of Pre-Raphaelitism- emphasizing common themes
and concerns among the group- or focuses specifically on
traditional Christian iconography. This latter strategy, while
useful in that it foregrounds symbolic content, is nevertheless
problematic because these two early works at once recuperate
and disrupt that traditional Christian context.
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin presents Mary in the company of
her parents and the young archangel Gabriel, a comfortable familial image were it not for the almost disconcerting number of
objects scattered about the room. Mary pays little attention to

her embroidery, even though she works under the watchful

eyes of her mother. The knowledge or education she will need


to fulfill her role in God's plan will not be acquired through her
embroidery lesson but from the surrounding objects through a
process of divine osmosis. The second painting depicts a more
familiar scene, the Annunciation, where, at some later point in
her life, Mary learns the purpose of her long years of preparation. The Annunciation scene constitutes a continuation of the

narrative that began in the first work. The two works are not
471

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472

SOUNDINGS

only clearly linked by a common theme and subject, their interconnection is further underscored by a sonnet Rossetti wrote
and attached to the frame of the first painting, "Mary's Girl-

hood (For a Picture)." Although the poem was affixed only to


this work, the concluding lines refer to the Annunciation:
Gabriel appears to Mary "because the fulness of the time was
come." It makes sense, then, in light of specific textual and
thematic evidence, to invite the viewer to "read" these two
paintings as "narrative." In fact, it is difficult to see how any
reading which fails to recognize the sequential relationship between these two works can account for Rossetti's transforma-

tion of standard Marian iconography.


If the two individual paintings can be read as a unitary text,
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin sets the stage for the far more impor-

tant and engaging act to follow. The relationship between the


two paintings, hitherto unnoticed, is one of antecedent to consequent, and accounts for the first work's dramatic dependence
on the second. This special function of the first work somewhat

compensates for the mundane scene of secular domesticity:


the Virgin works at her embroidery while her mother, St. Anne,
sits in quiet observation, her downcast eyes and clasped hands
providing the appropriate model of passivity which Mary will

be expected to emulate. The angel waters a potted lily, and

Mary's father, St. Joachim, stands outside the room pruning an


overhead vine. Rossetti's unusual choice to depict an early moment in Mary's life allows him to inject a new twist into a theme

popular during the Counter-Reformation. In a letter to his


godfather, Rossetti even characterizes his project as an improvement over the attempts of earlier artists:
The subject. . .has been treated at various times by Murillo and
other painters - but, as I cannot but think, in a very inadequate
manner, since they have invariably represented her as reading
from a book under the superintendence of her Mother, St. Anne,
an occupation obviously incompatible with these times. . .In order, therefore, to attempt something more probable and at the

same time less commonplace, I have represented the future

Mother of Our Lord as occupied in embroidering a lily - always


under the direction of St. Anne. (Henderson 18)

In spite of Rossetti's intentions and title, Mary is not at the


center of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin but relegated to the edge of

the frame where she might almost seem marginalized, over-

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 473

come by the superfluity of detail. Critics who insist on reading


each painting separately- outside of the context of the larger
narrative- depend on how the "appropriate symbolism" functions to enforce a sense of the devout (Bate 41). Because the
symbolic detail in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is so extensive, the

iconography appears to be easily explained in terms of the sym-

bols that, in the words of one critic, "exhibited a high moral


quality" (Grieve 7). Rossetti thrusts a profusion of symbolic
detail upon the viewer so that the eye must scan from one spot
to the next; in effect, the details inform the viewer of the paint-

ing's meaning and leave the viewer to "read" the symbols as a


kind of mini-narrative. However, it is not enough to know, for
example, that the oil lamp is an emblem of wisdom and piety,
or that the green color of St. Anne's mantle symbolizes immortality and divine love. For Rossetti, traditional Christian ico-

nography is only a starting-point. The context, indeed, the


precise location of these objects within the composition, and

their relationship to Mary, must be taken into account in order


to understand Rossetti's non-traditional use of the objects depicted. (This complex relationship between Mary and the surrounding objects is perhaps what Roger Fry was referring to
when he noted how Rossetti aimed to achieve artistic expres-

sion by "associated ideas" [100].) Rossetti transforms several


symbols substantially in order to create a larger, more complex
narrative, and to establish continuity with the second painting.

These modified symbols foreshadow the complex message of


the Annunciation and reinforce the narrative link between the

two paintings.
The small medieval organ on the floor behind Mary is a good
example of the problem of multiple, or multi-layered, interpretations. Traditionally, artists use this type of organ to symbolize the praise that the Church continually offers to God, as it

was consecrated to the service of God by St. Cecilia. Grieve

suggests that Rossetti intended the organ to refer to the contemporary revival of church music, though this seems to stray
quite far from the subject at hand (8). The presence of the organ may simply allude to the Pre-Raphaelite interest in things
medieval, yet its proximity to Mary and the large initial "M"
carved on its side invite a direct link between Mary and the organ. The fact that it sits unused but available implies that both

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SOUNDINGS

Dante Gabriel Rossetti The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

TG4872

(1848-49)

The Tate Gallery London

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 475

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Ecce Ancilla Domini!

(The Annunciation)
TG

1210

1849-50

The Tate Gallery London

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476

SOUNDINGS

the organ and Mary are the instruments of God's will; thus, the

inscription on the side of the organ reads: "O sis Laus Deo"
("May you be for God" or "May you be for the praise of God").

Inasmuch as the organ is untouched, it may further suggest


Mary's sexual state.
The stack of books on the floor in front of Mary is another

traditional symbol doubly laden with iconographical significance in the use of color and positioning. In some respects, the
color schema for instance, the symbolism is quite conventional,
hence, blue represents Faith, a traditional color of the Virgin
referring to truth and fidelity. Yet Rossetti also produces some
curious deviations from the standard iconography. The Latin
titles on the bindings clearly show that, while the artist presents
all three theological virtues (Hope, Faith and Charity), he includes only three of the four cardinal virtues (Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence). The omission of Justice is particularly
serious because it prevents the number of books from reaching
seven, the number symbolically linked with the Virgin's seven
joys and seven sorrows. Does Rossetti suggest that there is no
"justice" when a task is thrust upon an unwilling, naive participant? The conspicuous absence disrupts the completion of the

appropriate symbolism and forces a re-analysis of a predicament that asserts Mary as not only human but also as victim.

The idea of Mary-as-pawn, a woman with limited options,


continues in the image of the overhead vine which St. Joachim
prunes in the background. As the symbol of the Tree of Jesse,
the conventional Christian image of the genealogy of Christ,
the tree bears as its fruit the various ancestors of Christ and, in
the context of the painting, signifies Mary's position, her part
in the genealogy (Ferguson; Hall). Although Mary's role is extremely crucial, the vine suggests that Mary is just one individ-

ual among many in God's plan for man's salvation. These

literal object-lessons for the Virgin serve a dual function: they


symbolize the future course of events in Mary's life and also
underscore how Mary is just an ordinary young woman who has
been chosen rather than one who acts out of her own free will.

Rossetti presents the viewer with a Virgin deep in thought

about what her future may hold, but not yet fully comprehensive of its implications. There is, then, a certain irony in the
fact that Rossetti creates a work replete with symbols portend-

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 477

ing Mary's future which, although accessible to the viewer, are


as yet unclear to the quiet, meditative Mary. Rossetti captures
Mary suspended between the moment of her transformation
from an ordinary young girl to a key figure in God's divine
plan.
The most surprising aspect of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is
that, despite the symbolic clutter, the image is static rather than
dynamic. In a painting where practically every detail is a source
of meaning, where most participants work actively at embroidery or gardening, the overall impression is, paradoxically, flat
and stilted. The dull expression on Mary's pale and ascetic face

suggests only passivity, and similarly, the angel, a spiritual

presence in the household, appears aloof and uninvolved.

Gabriel, like Mary, fails to attend to his chore and seems to


stare off into space as if reflecting on future tasks that await
him. This painting seems, ultimately, a collection of exhausted
signifiers; it makes sense - but only within the confines of a

conventional iconographical context. The painting cannot

stand on its own because, like a joke without a punchline, it

works primarily as preparation for what is to follow. Only by


juxtaposing The Girlhood of Mary Virgin with its consequent, does

its inadequacy - that sense of incompletion - become readily


apparent. The first painting is utterly dependent on the second

painting, where both Mary's and the angel's roles will be

sharply intensified. By expanding our reading of the first painting to propose a sequential narrative relationship with the sec-

ond, we begin to understand how Rossetti undermines

conventional iconography.
In Ecce Anelila Domini, where the narrative shifts abruptly,

Rossetti turns his attention to the task for which Mary has been

chosen and prepared. When Mary learns the reason for the
Angel's visit, her girlhood passivity succumbs to an overwhelming sense of her own powerlessness. The angel is now the initiator. This second work contains far fewer symbolic details and,
as a result, the open areas of the canvas give an immediate impression of starkness and movement, compared with the clutter
of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Rossetti's new interest in the
psychosexual dimension of Mary as a woman calls for the elimi-

nation of such distracting details. The archangel appears to

Mary, who is sitting up in her bed - her back against the wall in

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SOUNDINGS

more ways than one. By setting this emotionally-charged encounter between Gabriel and Mary in a cramped little bedroom, and by tightly cropping the two central figures, the
painter increases tension and heightens the drama. To further
intensify the sense of claustrophobia, the only colors to offset
the overall whiteness of the scene (walls, floor and robes) are
the vivid colors of the embroidery, a bit of blue sky through a
small window and the blue drapery behind Mary at the head of
her bed. Appropriately, the traditional colors of the Virgin,

white and blue, dominate.

Why is this work so startling? First, the position of the


figures in relation to one another is completely original for an
Annunciation scene. Traditionally, the angel, on bended knee,
gestures toward heaven and presents the lily to Mary. Rossetti's angel stands rigidly erect, attempts to calm Mary with his
left hand and holds the lily in his right. Gabriel - no longer the
child who merely tended the lily in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin -

wears a partially open robe which reveals a human form under-

neath. This new corporeality suggests a somewhat less than

angelic angel: a body neither transparent nor luminous. In the

process of becoming a man, Gabriel has lost his wings, yet,


though ambulatory, his feet are still engulfed in flames. The
Virgin, barely awake, receives the solemn, if contradictory,
messenger into her private bedchamber, perhaps uncertain if

he is man or angel. Gabriel's face, one possible source of

resolving some of the ambiguity, turns away from the viewer.


We see only his shadowy profile with any clarity because shading obscures his expression and features. The important point
here is that the very materiality of Gabriel's body works against
his role as a holy messenger from God.
This painting also departs from other Annunciation scenes in

the plain dress of Gabriel and Mary. Typically, such scenes


present the two central figures in sartorial splendor. White, of
course, is a traditional color in that it signifies light, purity, innocence, virginity, joy and life (Jameson, Legends 35; Hall). Yet
even here something is wrong. Mary's white dress should serve
only as an undergarment - the blue robe should provide a pro-

tective covering rather than dangle uselessly on a rack in the


background. Rossetti's Virgin wears only a night-gown, and a
revealing one at that: exposing her bare arms and the contours

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 479

of her body. Mary's amorphous robe suggests that she has not

yet reached womanhood. Although the meeting between the


angel and Mary often occurs in the Virgin's bedroom, the Vir-

gin usually assumes a standing position and only rarely is


seated (Jameson, Sacred 1:119; Schiller; Robb). Rossetti's Virgin, still in her own bed, appears to have just been awakened by

the messenger of God. This position and situation, which

might have been shocking and unacceptable in the eyes of a


public reacting to the almost complete avoidance of a more
religious, ethereal response, may account in part for the work's

hostile reception. Rossetti's Virgin Mary is an ordinary and


vulnerable woman who responds to an extraordinary situation.

Traditional Annunciation scenes depict Mary as the "chosen


vessel of redemption, and the personification of all female love-

liness, all female excellence, all wisdom and all purity."2 In


some scenes, Mary rises from a throne in triumph as she ac-

cepts her task with joyful celebration. In Rossetti's Annuncia-

tion, however, the contemplative, distant expression of the


younger Mary gives way to an entirely new experience. Passionless, fearful and on the brink of physical collapse under the

weight of the news, Mary shrinks back against the wall. She
awakes from sleep only to discover another kind of awakening.
How does Rossetti's Mary respond to this mysterious circumstance, of virginity and motherhood combined? Her face registers bewildered apprehension and her body recoils in fear, an
unorthodox reaction to say the least. Rossetti appropriates
some of the traditional attributes of the Virgin but, in minimiz-

ing the divine and foregrounding the human, he undermines


an entire tradition. Rossetti's radical gesture can only be understood in light of his earlier refusal to allow an idealized
Mary to become the focus of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Rossetti's Virgin is first a woman, and second the personification of

certain ideals.

With slight modifications, Rossetti ensures narrative continuity through the compositional arrangement of the figures in

each painting. Like the physical act of reading from left to


right, the artist assigns the central figures parallel positions: in

both works Gabriel stands on the left and Mary sits on the
right. This physical correspondence enforces dramatic cohe-

sion and clarifies the continuity of their relationship to one an-

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SOUNDINGS

other. However, the symbolic continuities with the first work,


such as the dove, the embroidery, the oil lamp, and the lily, are
significantly altered in Ecce Ancilla Domini. In the first painting,
the dove - the symbol of the Holy Spirit - was perched quietly

outside the family room just above Gabriel's head. In the Annunciation, the dove flies into Mary's bedroom to confront
her - an intrusion signaling the end of her patient, if uninformed, anticipation. The dove floats in suspension between
Gabriel and Mary. In the sequel, like Mary and Gabriel, the
Holy Spirit moves from a calm, uninvolved position to an active
one. Rossetti situates the bright red embroidery prominently

in the foreground of the second work to emphasize Mary's


completion of her first chore (the act of embroidering the lily
constitutes an integral part of her "education"). Mary's first

accomplishment marks the end of the time of expectation;

preparations are complete for her initiation into motherhood.


The artist highlights the transition with a color change in the
lily itself: from blue (the color of faith) to white (the color of
virginity and purity). The white lily stands out against a rich
red background, emblematic of the blood of menstruation or

childbirth, and of Mary's power to conceive. Because half of


the embroidery is devoid of pattern, the lily's unusual upsidedown position is even more striking. By turning the lily on its
head, Rossetti alludes to the inverted virginity implicit in the
religious paradox of pregnancy outside of sexual intercourse.
The unlit lamp, which in the first painting rested unused on a

shelf, now casts a small amount of light over the angel and
Mary, reinforcing Mary's tentative sexual and spiritual awakening. Rossetti's attention to these important details reinforces

the sense of continuation that invites the viewer to read the two

works as constituent parts of a narrative.


The angel's face is turned in such a way that his gaze is impossible to decipher, so our attention shifts to the object which
the angel offers to Mary. This object is the lily now wrenched
away from the pot where Gabriel was watering it in the first
painting, and where it was a reflection of his capacity to give
spiritual nourishment. The three-flowered lily - a traditional
flower of the Virgin which signifies purity and innocence - un-

dergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, removing it from its

traditional Christian context. In Ecce Ancilla Domini, two of the

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 481

flowers on the lily are open but one is still a bud. Since the
three-flowered lily is associated with the Trinity, the fact that
one of the flowers remains unopened symbolizes the birth of
Christ which is yet to come. The bud resonates with the elements so integral to the myth of the virgin birth: purity and
emerging sexuality. By juxtaposing the two paintings, we see
that the lily acquires equal status with Mary and Gabriel - a gesture that underscores Rossetti's obsession with the dichotomy
of Mary as virgin and mother.

In Renaissance art, the lily is also an attribute of Gabriel: the


archangel either holds a lily or a lily is placed in a vase between

the Virgin and the angel (Ferguson; Hall; Schiller). However,


here the lily points toward Mary's womb in a sexually explicit
way. Scholars have been unable to account for the unconventional positioning of the lily in Gabriel's hand. One critic, for
instance, discusses the pattern set up between the lily in the
hand and the embroidered lily: "The lily in Gabriel's hand, al-

most an enameled wand, becomes reversed in the lily on the


now completed strip of embroidery" (Johnson 224). The anal-

ysis then moves on to consider the decorative function of the

lily's stylized form. Such an analysis avoids the obvious: the


lily is the symbolic instrument of impregnation. The act of
thrusting this phallic lily toward the newly awakened Virgin is
so charged with meaning, it is difficult to imagine that the sex-

ual overtones have been so long ignored. Rossetti's Annunciation scene depicts the transformation from sexual innocence to
sexual awareness. Rossetti subverts the meaning of this traditional symbol of the Annunciation scene by transforming an

erstwhile symbol of purity into an instrument of sexuality. This


startling gesture disrupts the central mystery of the Annunciation, that is, Mary's move from virginity to motherhood without
sexual initiation. Yet this symbolic connection is a simple visual leap for the viewer: the tip of the lily leads the eye from
Mary's womb to the emblem of her virginity in the form of the
embroidered lily on the right. By saturating the lily with a multiplicity of meanings, Rossetti captures the religious paradox of
the moment.

Rossetti's depiction of the Annunciation clearly departs from


convention in several important respects, even if his choice of
subject matter does not. Paradoxically, while the first painting

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SOUNDINGS

uses an inordinate number of conventional symbols for an unconventional subject, the second painting, with a familiar topic,
makes unconventional use of these symbols. In the latter work,
Rossetti infuses standard Marian iconography with a new vitality through co-optation and subversion. As a result, the pro-

cess of symbolic revitalization extends to the central figure

herself, a new, fully human Virgin Mary. The loss of detail in


the Annunciation signifies gain. In both works, the symbolic
details, set in an entirely different context, highlight Mary's
human nature at a precise moment in time and anticipate the
impact of a future course of events. Even though ambiguity is
not entirely eluded, Rossetti's new interpretation of Mary's experience is complex and radically daring. The viewer must relinquish old standards and values, and acknowledge that Mary
is a vulnerable, perplexed individual with an uncertain commitment to a role she accepts with little choice. Rossetti goes far

beyond the boundaries of a traditional religious depiction of


scenes in the life of the Virgin and succeeds in creating a
powerfully dramatic visual narrative sequence.
NOTES

1. Doughty's biography, in particular, discusses Bell Scott's criticism of


Rossetti's clumsy and unskillful technique and Holman Hunt's apparent

shock at Rossetti's disregard for the laws of perspective. See Oswald

Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic (New Haven: Yale

University Press, 1949). Other critics who have focused on Rossetti's

technical ability include: Brian and Judy Dobbs, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An

Alien Victorian (London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1977); Ford Maddox

Hueffer, Rossetti: A Critical Essay on His Art (London: Duckworth, 1902);


and Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1973), who also mentions that Holman Hunt consistently complained

about Rossetti's lack of formal discipline. Among those critics who discuss Rossetti's work in terms of its broader symbolism are Percy Bate,

The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters: Their Associates and Successors (London:

George Bell and Sons, 1905); A.I. Grieve, The Pre-Raphaelite Period 1848-

50 (Norfolk: Real World Publications, 1973); Wendell Stacy Johnson,

"D.G. Rossetti as Painter and Poet," Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. James Sambrook (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1974); J.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of His Art

and Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901); John Nicoli, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti (New York: Macmillan, 1975); and William Sharp, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti: A Recordando Study (London: Macmillan, 1882).

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NARRATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ICONOGRAPHY 483


2. Anna B. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna (London: Longmans, Green,
and Co., 1879) 116. For a thorough examination of the iconography of
the Annunciation see Schiller 1:33-52; and Robb.

WORKS CITED
Bate, Percy
1905 The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters: Their
Associates and Successors. London: George
Bell and Sons.

Ferguson, George
1959 Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Fry, Roger
1916 "Rossetti's Water Colours of 1857."
Burlington Magazine (July) 100.

Grieve, A.I.

1973 The Pre-Raphaelite Period 1848-50. Norfolk:


Real World Publications.

Hall, James
1974 Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New
York: Harper 8c Row.
Henderson, Marina
1973 Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New York: St.
Martin's Press.

Jameson, Anna B.

1879 Legends of the Madonna. London: Longmans,


Green and Co.

1896 Sacred and Legendary Art. 2 vols. London:


Longmans, Green and Co.

Johnson, Wendell Stacy

1974 "D.G. Rossetti as Painter and Poet." Pre-

Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays.

Ed. James Sambrook. Chicago: University


of Chicago Press.
Robb, David M.

1936 "The Iconography of the Annunciation in


the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries."

Art Bulletin 18: 480-526.

Schiller, Gertrud
1966 Iconography of Christian Art. Trans. Janet

Seligman. Vol. 1. Greenwich: New York

Graphic Society. 2 vols.

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