The term “Pre-Raphaelite” was first used to describe a group of German artists who early in the nineteenth century formed a brotherhood in Rome to restore Christian art to the medieval purity of the great Italian masters preceding Raphael. The German group was short-lived, and the term was later used to designate the English school founded by Rossetti and his followers. In general, the English Pre-Raphaelites reacted against the neoclassic tendencies and low standards of the art of their day. Both their painting and their literature are characterized by an interest in the medieval and the supernatural, simplicity of style, love of sensuous beauty, exactness of detail, and much symbolism. Not only is “The Blessed Damozel” Rossetti’s best-known work, but it also epitomizes the Pre-Raphaelite school. He used the medieval form of damsel, “damozel”—a young, unmarried woman of noble birth—in the
title to emphasize the medieval setting and visionary aspects of the poem. He was commissioned in 1871 to do a painting of the poem and by 1879 had given it a predella showing an earthly lover (wearing a cloak and a sword) lying under a tree in the forest looking up at his beloved. The poem is presented as his reverie. He dreams that she leans out from the golden bar of heaven. Although she has been in heaven ten years, to her it scarcely seems a day. In the forest, the lover imagines that the autumn leaves are her hair falling on his face.Around her, lovers, met again in heaven, speak among themselves, and souls ascending to God go by “like thin flames.” Her gaze pierces the abyss between heaven and earth, and she speaks. (Her lover imagines that he hears her voice in the birds’ song.) She wishes that he would come to her, for when he does they will lie together in paradise and she herself will teach him the songs of heaven. She will ask Jesus that they be allowed to live and love as they once did on earth—but for eternity. She sees a flight of angels pass by and...
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