Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
What is the story behind this painting?
Beata Beatrix (which translates to Blessed Beatrice) was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti in c.1864-70.
What we see is a posthumous painting of the artist’s wife – Elizabeth Siddal – in the guise of Beatrice Portinari, the woman that the Italian Poet Dante Alighieri became instantly infatuated with when he was nine years old, as he recounts in his 1294 poem La Vita Nuova.
Dante loved Beatrice from afar until her death in 1290 at the age of 24. In his Divine Comedy, Beatrice (his salvation, as he describes her), serves as his guide in Heaven.
Beatrice, who likely never knew the extent of Dante’s love for her, has since become a literary symbol of idealized and unrequited love; a universal icon of love that transcends the physical.
So here, Rossetti is drawing a bold parallel between Dante’s grief at the death of his beloved Beatrice, and his own despair at the death of his wife, who died on 11th February, 1862.
Rossetti definitely believed that he and Dante shred more than just a first name. To say that he was obsessed with Dante is an understatement. As his fascination grew, he began to identify more and more with the Italian poet, to the point where he practically adopted his identity as his own.
Here, we see Beatrice on the brink of death. Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted, and her head tilted back to expose her neck. She seems at peace, or rather, in the midst of "a sudden spiritual transfiguration" as Rossetti intended. Indeed, her upturned palms, that rest upon her lap, seem to be welcoming the red dove (a symbol of both peace, and the Holy Spirit) that holds an opium poppy in its beak.
In this case, the dove also bears somber significance, as Elizabeth died by suicide from a Laudanum overdose. Moreover, Rossetti allegedly often referred to Elizabeth as "The Dove;" making this an incredibly poignant symbol.
Beatrice wears a grey and green dress, which according to Rossetti, are the colours of ‘hope and sorrow as well as of love and life.’ She and the dove are surrounded by a soft atmospheric haziness that makes her seem like a spiritual apparition or dream. The warm light that illuminates her face and awakens her red hair, foreshadows her heavenly transition.
In the background, we see the River Arno and the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, the city in which the story of Dante and Beatrice’s love takes place. To the right, we see the figure of Dante. He looks towards the left, to the allegorical figure of Love, portrayed as an angel holding the faint, flickering flame of Beatrice’s life.
To the right, the sundial casts a shadow over the number 9; a subtle hint towards the date and time of Beatrice’s death at 9am on the 9th of June in 1290.
I find this painting hauntingly beautiful. It is imbued with such intensely personal symbolism that we cannot help but get wrapped up in Rossetti’s passionate deep love for his very own Beatrice, and his heartbreak and pain at having lost her.
Here, Elizabeth Siddal is immortalized as a tragically beautiful heroine, submerged in a hazy layer of loss, sorrow, and melancholy.
· Rossetti also designed the painting’s smooth gold-leaf frame, to which he added the date of Beatrice’s death, and a quote from Dante’s Vita Nuova: "quomodo sedet sola civitas" ("how doth the city sit solitary").
· Rossetti painted the figure of Elizabeth from sketches that were completed before her death.