Sonnets for Pictures

A Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmeling
Better known as Hans Memling (1430-94), a Flemish painter who became one of the most successful artists of the Bruges School. He is noted for his mystical and devotional paintings. The Virgin and Child was painted in 1487 and is now owned by the Staatsche Museum in Berlin.

In a letter to James Collinson on 24 October 1849, describing the sights of Bruges, DGR writes:

But by far the best of all are the miraculous works of Memling and Van Eyck. The former is here in a strength that quite stunned us -- and perhaps proves himself to have been a greater man even than the latter. In fact, he was certainly so intellectually, and quite equal in mechanical power. His greatest production is a large triptych in the Hospital of St. John, representing in its three compartments: firstly, the Decollation of St. John Baptist; secondly, the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine to the Infant Saviour; and thirdly, the Vision of St. John Evangelist in Patmos. I shall not attempt any description; I assure you that the perfection of character and even drawing, the astounding finish, the glory of colour, and above all the pure religious sentiment and ecstatic poetry of these works, is not to be conceived or described. Even in seeing them, the mind is at first bewildered by such Godlike completeness; and only after some while has elapsed can at all analyse the causes of its awe and admiration; and then finds these feelings so much increased by analysis that the last impression left is mainly one of utter shame at its own inferiority. Van Eyck's picture at the Gallery may give you some idea of the style adopted by Memling in these great pictures; but the effect of light and colour is much less poetical in Van Eyck's; partly owing to his being a more sober subject and an interior, but partly also, I believe, to the intrinsic superiority of Memling's intellect. In the background of the first compartment there is a landscape more perfect in the abstract lofty feeling of nature than anything I have ever seen. The visions of the third compartment are wonderfully mystic and poetical.

The Royal Academy here possessed also some most stupendous works of Memling -- among them one of a Virgin and Child, quite astounding .... His pictures are not painted with oil -- he having preceded Van Eyck -- but with some vehicle of which brandy and white of egg are the principal components. They have cracked very slightly indeed; and one cannot conceive the colours to have been more brilliant on the day of their completion.

Rossetti also wrote two narrative poems about Memling's works, "Antwerp to Ghent" and "On Leaving Bruges," which were never published during his lifetime. Their first public appearance was in William Michael Rossetti's 1886 collected edition of his brother's work.

A Marriage of St. Katherine
Also known as "Mystical Marriage of St. Katherine of Alexandria" (1479). The cult of St. Katherine began in the ninth century, when her body was reported to have been brought to Mt. Sinai by angels. Born of noble parents, she was persecuted and beheaded for her refusal to marry the emperor because, as she explained, she was already the bride of Christ. Her cult flourished during the Middle Ages and later became widespread in England. Katherine is the patron saint of young girls, students, clergy, and craftsmen.

John whom He loved and John His harbinger
Respectively, John the Apostle and John the Baptist.

A Dance of Nymphs, by Andrea Mantegna
Properly titled "Le Parnasse" (Parnassus), this painting was completed in 1497. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a painter and engraver. Widely considered to be the first true artist of the Renaissance in northern Italy, Mantegna inspired later artists like Bellini and Durer who imitated his classical style. His major achievements were in fresco painting, and he began a tradition of ceiling decoration which lasted three centuries.

A Venetian Pastoral, by Giorgione
Also known as "Concerto Campestre," this painting was finished in 1510. Giorgione (1477-1510), also known as Giorgio da Castelfranco, was a very influential Venetian painter of the High Renaissance style. He is perhaps best known for the mysterious mood of paintings like "The Tempest." Giorgione excelled in portraiture and is considered a master of form and color.

In a letter of 8 October 1849 to WMR, DGR refers to this painting:

A Pastoral--at least, a kind of Pastoral--by Giorgione, which is so intensely fine that I condescend to sit down before it and write a sonnet. You must have heard me rave about the engraving before, and, I fancy, have seen it yourself. There is a woman, naked at one side, who is dipping a glass vessel into a well, and in the centre two men and another naked woman, who seem to have paused for a moment in playing on the musical instruments which they hold.

Angelica rescued from the Sea-monster, by Ingres
Better known as "Roger Deliverant Angelique," painted in 1819. The story behind this picture is derived from Ariosto. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was the leader of the Neoclassical School after David. Most notable are his portraits, and his insistence on sensual line and color in works like "La Grande Odalisque" (1819). Ingres profoundly influenced later artists such as Picasso and Renoir.

geomaunt and teraphim
Geomaunt: Usually spelled "geomant," from the Italian geomante, meaning an occult philosophy of divination by points and circles made on the earth.

Teraphim: Hebrew word, meaning an idol or image.