Tate Britain is currently showing an extensive exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work, much of which had religious, spiritual or moral themes. I'll come back in a bit to the distinctions between those categories. It is striking that the biblical themes presented by the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have such everyday settings, though there are many references to traditional motifs. It is said that the 'ordinariness' of the settings caused a stir among the original viewers of the works, but that makes me wonder how many of them had ever seen one of Rembrandt's religious paintings! However, there is still something fresh in the works which makes us look both at the signs within the scenes and at the interactions at atmosphere of the scenes themselves. Here is Millais' famous Christ in the House of His Parents of 1849-50:
The Baptist's rough garment and 'baptismal' water; the child Jesus' wounded hand; the omnipresent parts of a cross - these traditional signs take place among the shavings of the workshop floor and the strained physicality of daily labour. This is very much the 'heaven in ordinarie' of Herbert's poem.
Similarly, Rosetti's pair of paintings from around the same time of Mary's youth and then Annunciation have no golden background, though there are halos, lilies, angel wings and doves to let us know what's going on. I enjoy the motif of Mary's tapestry, first in production then as a finished article, ready for her decisive moment:
Although they stress Mary's 'ordinariness', Rosetti's pictures are considerably more stylised than Millais'. Again, I would want to stress that the PRB were not breaking new ground in presenting the humanity of biblical figures but there is something about the psychology of those portrayed that is alert to the insights and sensibilities of their time.
To gain what he considered a higher degree of authenticity in his biblical paintings, Holman Hunt travelled to Palestine to observe daily life, landscape and customs and presented his figures in suitably 'authentic' settings. Of course, his notion of authenticity depended on an unchanging orient, but he was probably simply sharing in the assumptions of his time in this regard. Here is a picture of him in 'eastern' attire:
Holman Hunt's pictures do reflect this attention to detail, but there is an additional dimension to them that makes me question some of the assumptions about the underlying spirituality of the PRB. Here's an example:
The lanscape and garments reflect his observation of the Palestine he visited, but the image is a remarkably symbolic and powerful one. The prefiguring of the crucifixion in Jesus' pose is almost too obvious, and is reinforced by Mary's rummaging around in the Magi's gifts, which also point to his death. But it is the ecstatic pose of Jesus that is most compelling to me. He is almost in a trance-like dance, bathed in a warm evening light and lifting his eyes heavenwards. This makes the prefigured crucifixion more of a moment of intense identification with the Father than a simple tragedy.
The Tate Exhibition partly shares the common assumption that Victorian religion is primarily a matter of morality, especially in the light of scientific advance. The PRB and the Arts and Crafts Movement that followed it are shown as honouring simple labour and emphasising justice for the worker. However, I think it would be wrong to miss the mystical strand of the Pre-Raphaelites as shown in Holman Hunt's painting and in the lovely little work, Man of Sorrows, by William Dyce that I have written about before and is also in the exhibition. There are, undoubtedly, contradictions in these works - ordinariness and symbolism, morality and mysticism - but I find these contradictions are part of what makes them enduringly interesting.