Poesía Inglesa Siglos XIX-XX

Curso 2005-2006

Profesor: Vicente Forés

Alumno: Alfredo Carbonell Rico


‘The Passover in the Holy Family’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1856)

1  Here meet together the prefiguring day
2     And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
3     Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
4 With blood-stained door and lintel,'--did God say
5 By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
6     And now, where this poor household doth comprise
7      At Paschal-Feast two kindred families,--
8 Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

9  The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
10     What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
11Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
12     By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
13     He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
14And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.




(4) Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Poetical Works. 2vols. [Ed. William Michael Rossetti.] Boston: Little, Brown, 1913. I, 281-82. American printing of British edition published by Roberts Brothers, 1887. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/2.html (text)

(5)Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Passover in the Holy Family: Gathering Bitter Herbs. 1855-56. Watercolor. 16 x 17 in. Tate Gallery. London. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/drawings/2.html (painting)






(1) Textualization and Typology in "The Passover in the Holy Family" http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/drawings/kashtan4.html

 Editor George P. Landow


(2) The Dual Sacrifices in Rossetti's Layered Passover Scene


 Editor George P. Landow


(3) Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Passover in the Holy Family


Editor George P. Landow


All the research was made on the 26th February 2006 at 17:00 pm.





The Passover in the Holy Family’ is the title for both a poem and a painting composed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In this essay we are going to analyse the direct relation between both artistic compositions, for it is obvious that the two creations share the same topic. Therefore, we will try to show how the painting reflects visually what the poem is saying through words but also how the poem expresses through words what the painting is saying with images.

The title of the poem is the same as the one for the painting, ‘The Passover in the Holy Family’ (4) (5). The title is definitively telling us what both the poem and the painting are going to deal with, without any literary device to decorate it. It is a very simple style like the one used to write the Bible or the one used for ages to represent scenes from the Holy Book. We can also easily guess that the two artistic creations are going to make reference to the same main topic.

Formally speaking, the poem (4) is a ‘sonnet’ (3) divided into two stanzas with eight and six verses each. The rhyme pattern followed in the poem is ABBAACCA for the first stanza and ABABBA for the second one. We can easily appreciate here that the author is following a very classical pattern to express this episode from the Bible. I consider this fact very proper indeed, for Rossetti is using an old poetic form to tell an episode as old as the one from the Holy Book.

When we take a look at the painting, we get the same effect. For it is a very old episode from a very old book, the painter uses some techniques to reflect the  age of all these events. Therefore, we can appreciate that ‘Rossetti uses warm colours, and the green and blue in the painting verge on bright, but the visible lines and imprecise details create a worn effect, making the painting seem aged’ (2)

The language of the poem is also very simple and clear. As long as it is reflecting a very old event, it uses a very easy, straightforward vocabulary, without any kind of complexity. This is the way that the ancient literature was written so this was the only way that the author could reproduce the event he is talking about. In a closer reading, we can find that the author is constantly referring to the semantic field of a Christian ceremony. Therefore, we can find the terms ‘Blood’ (lines 4, 11), ‘God’ (line 4), ‘Moses’ (line 5), ‘Lamb’ (line 8), ‘Zachary’ and ‘John’ (line 12) or ‘Mary’ and ‘Bitter Herbs’ (line 14)

In the same way, we can find a very simple painting (5), where although we can find some symbols, it is not hard at all to distinguish what is painted there. ‘The watercolor shows the Holy Family preparing for the Passover holiday: Mary gathers bitter herbs, one of the traditional components of the Seder plate, while Zachary paints the door and lintel of the house with lamb's blood as prescribed by the Book of Exodus. Jesus holds the bowl of lamb's blood as John the Baptist ties Jesus's shoes.’ (1) ‘The young Christ occupies the center of the composition, and around him the other figures revolve. He stands holding on to a wooden beam with one hand and the bowl of lamb's blood in the other. His gaze leads to Mary, whose hand reaches down to gather the bitter herbs at his feet. On the ground, wearing a worn brown cloth, John kneels before Christ, binding his shoes. Standing behind John, Zacharius reaches directly above Christ's head to stain the porch with blood.’ (2)

The grammatical person that the author used to write the poem is the third one, as long as he is telling the story that happened to other people. We can find an evidence in line 13 in the use of the pronoun ‘He’, as well as in the tone of the poem. This literary device is used following the style of the Bible, for the poem  is dealing with one of its passages. For me, this component has a straightforward relation with the painting. As readers of a poem, we are told a story through words, so we are the listeners, the passive component in the communication and as viewers of a painting, we play the same role in the communication, we just see what the painter wants us to see.


According to the language used in the poem, we can find very strong images evoking  what the title just announced. ‘In light of Rossetti's poem accompanying the watercolor, the scene carries the weight of the past and foretells Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.’ (2) ‘All these actions are invested with typological symbolism. For example, the lamb's blood symbolizes the blood that Christ, the Lamb (with capital L), will later shed on the cross, whereas the bitter herbs perhaps echo the bitterness of Christ's sacrifice.’ (1) ‘The poem explicitly spells out the symbolism of the painting; for example, it states what John is doing and identifies the typological meaning of this action (1), and    ‘The scene stands between the prefiguring day -- Mose's leading the Jews out of Egypt -- and the day prefigured -- Christ, through his death and resurrection, leading human beings from sin to salvation. The Holy family pictured fulfills God's mandates for Passover voiced by Moses. Jesus holds the bowl, providing for Zacharius the blood of the sacrificed lamb that will keep the Angel of Death away, but it also symbolizes that through his Crucifixion, Jesus sacrifices his blood to save mankind from death. The blood he holds and the blood above him foreshadows his Crucifixion and the redemption that comes from it. Below him, the bitter herbs required for the ritual serve as the reminder of the suffering of the Jews.’ (2)


Personally, I have really enjoyed both the reading and the analysing of the poem, for it shows a very simple and clear vocabulary and structure and a straightforward meaning. I also think that the poet perfectly transmits the event to the readers by all the devices explained before. But to be honest, I must admit that I am completely lost when dealing both with painting analysis and religion, so I saw myself forced to use some references for I felt that I was missing too many details in my analysis.