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Idolatrous Embroidery and Themes of the Cloister in Millais’s Mariana

Angela Parker, Virginia Commonwealth University

Idolatrous Embroidery and Themes of the Cloister in Millais’s Mariana
In his letter to the London Times in May 1851, John Ruskin prefaced his praise of the Pre-Raphaelites by stating that he had no sympathy with their “Tractarian tendencies” (8). He was glad to see that Mariana had grown “heartily tired of her painted window and idolatrous toilet-table” (8). Ruskin’s desire to distance himself from the religious content of Mariana (1851) is indicative of contemporary debates about the role of Catholic tradition in the Anglican Church (Figure 1). The “Tractarian tendencies” that Ruskin identifies in the painting relate to the Tractarian, or Oxford, Movement that was started at Oxford University in 1833. From their foundation to their dissolution in 1845, the Tractarians wrote a series of ninety tracts that called for a return to the doctrine of the pre-Reformation church. After 1845, the movement remained influential among High Church Anglicans, who focused on ceremony and ritual, but it was largely opposed by Low Church Anglicans, who concentrated on personal faith and salvation. Its presence was still strong in 1851 when Millais exhibited Mariana (Hall). While some Anglican parishioners and priests responded enthusiastically to the Tractarians, others feared that they were trying to bring Roman Catholic practices back into the Anglican Church. Stained glass windows and altar adornments, like the ones seen in Mariana, became symbols of larger concerns about the changes that the Tractarians wanted to make to the liturgical practices of the Anglican Church (Maurice).
While later critics of Mariana have not shared Ruskin’s vested interest in the debate over Tractarianism, they have tended to limit their discussion of the painting’s religious content to the same two objects that attracted his attention—the altar and the stained glass window (Sussman 49).@ Mariana’s embroidery, in contrast, has been linked to the relationship between the exterior and interior and Mariana’s weary waiting (Barlow 28).@ This split between the secular and religious themes of the painting is misleading. The religious significance of the altar, stained glass window, and embroidery are all interrelated. Together, they connect the painting with contemporary debates about Tractarianism and depictions of nuns and novices.
To understand the network of religious allusions in the painting, it is helpful to begin with a brief discussion of altars. From the Protestant Reformation until the 1830s, altars had a greatly diminished role in Anglican churches. They were associated with Catholic rites that were practiced less frequently or were absent in the Anglican Church. With the shift in focus from rites to the sermon, altars had taken on an ancillary role as pulpits were given a more prominent position. Many Low Church Anglican parishioners considered the renewed attention given to altars suspect because they feared that it signaled a move back to a traditional Catholic mass (Clark 154). Critiques of the Tractarians’ use of altars also addressed their decoration.
The altar decorations in Mariana represent the two major types of objects that were criticized by Low Church Anglicans, objects of uncertain subject matter and objects made of fine materials. Because of the dense shadows and the angle of the wall behind the altar, it is not possible to decipher how the triptych and the stained glass window above the altar in Mariana are decorated. This illegibility is at the core of what concerned Low Church Anglicans about the altar decorations advocated by the Tractarians. Lack of clarity in imagery or symbolism prompted fears that decorations might covertly relate to the Catholic Church. The more clearly defined objects on the altar—the candlestick, vases, and censer or incense burner—are the types of decorations that were critiqued for their rich materials. The highlights on the vases and the censer or incense burner emphasize the gleaming silver surfaces that would have offended Low Church Anglicans, who believed that such sumptuous decorations interfered with the religious message of the sermon (Maurice 53n).
Mariana’s embroidery table is usually treated as a domestic alternative to the altar. I would like to offer a different reading of the relationship between the altar and the embroidery table that belies this clear-cut distinction between the religious and the domestic. In 1850, a concerned Low Church Anglican parishioner reported on the liturgical practices and decoration in three Anglican churches in London. The altar at Christ Church, Albany Street particularly offended him. He began his description of it by noting the fabric that adorned it: “The whole was covered by a richly embroidered cloth. Just covering the top, and hanging down on each side was, ‘a linen cloth,’ which however left the entire front exposed and altar-like” (Churchman of the Reformation 9). The resemblance between this description and the embroidery table is striking. The golden green of the embroidery cloth and its red and purple flowers create a dense, rich effect, and the creased linen folds away from the front of the table to leave the space in front of Mariana bare. Given this connection to contemporary church decoration, the embroidery table can be interpreted as a second altar and the embroidery upon it as an altar cloth.
Like other altar decorations, altar cloths were critiqued for their potentially Catholic subject matter. Floral motifs in particular raised suspicions because of their association with Catholic rites and symbolism (Barrett 55-100). Anxiety about the possible meanings of embroidery designs was heightened among the vocal minority of Anglicans who believed that each element of the architecture and decoration of the church should be symbolic (Neale and Webb). These parishioners could have imbued the seemingly innocuous floral design of Mariana’s embroidery with pernicious meanings. The placement of Mariana’s embroidery in the painting adds to its potentially controversial meaning. When Mariana sits to work on her embroidery, the stained glass window of the Annunciation would be at her eye level. As such, the window could serve as the religious inspiration for her work. The connection to the Virgin Mary would have been particularly provocative at the time. The adoration of Mary had a rich history in the Catholic Church, and many Anglicans viewed it as idolatry, or more specifically, Mariolatry (Eslick). The Tractarians, in contrast, wanted to recover the worship of Mary as part of the heritage of the Anglican Church (Patrick 189-190). The placement of the embroidery thus links Mariana to debates about the decorative symbolism of Tractarian embroidery and the proper role of Mary in the Anglican Church.
Thus far this paper has focused on the network of religious symbolism created by Mariana’s surroundings, but she is more just than an intermediary between these different objects. Her active role in embroidering connects her directly to debates about women’s roles in the Anglican Church. While Tractarian churches had a greater proportion of women to men, the distribution was only slightly more exaggerated than that found in other Anglican churches. Nevertheless, the number of women in these churches, and their participation in decorating them, was continually critiqued. Priests who encouraged women to embroider and sew for the church were accused of trying to lure women into their parishes by appealing to their sentiments and love of ornament (Yates 288). Embroidery was a particular point of contention because of its association with domestic crafts. Embroidering and sewing were considered essential parts of a woman’s duty to her family (Parker 158-159). The shift of women’s energy toward church embroidery raised questions about the relative roles of home and church in women’s lives. In the case of single women, these issues were related to concerns about the redundant woman question. Around mid-century, Victorians became anxious about the fact that there were increasingly more women than men in England, which left many eligible women single (Greg). Mariana would have fit into this category of redundant women who were marriageable but were leading solitary lives. Her character originally appeared in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in which her fiancé Angelo abandons her because the ship carrying both her dowry and her brother is lost at sea (Shakespeare). Though Mariana is eventually reunited with Angelo, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote two poems that focus on the period of time when Mariana believes that she has lost him forever. In “Mariana” and “Mariana in the South,” Tennyson describes Mariana’s weary waiting in which night follows day without change (Barlow 24). Some writers considered church embroidery a suitable task for unattached women such as Mariana, but more often these women were looked upon with a mixture of anxiety and pity (Mumm 169). Milliais’s portrayal of Mariana’s turn to embroidery is ambiguous. The act of embroidering has made Mariana weary in both mind and body, but it is also the only activity that she has to distract herself from her monotonous existence, much like her Victorian counterparts. She represents the difficult position of the redundant woman, who was pitied for her inability to be a wife and mother and criticized if she found fulfillment in another way of life.
The Tractarian movement offered a further alternative to married life that sparked even more intense debate. Along with the changes they proposed to church practices and decoration, the Tractarians advocated the foundation of Anglican sisterhoods. Their efforts were successful. The first Anglican sisterhood was founded in 1845 and by 1860 there were fourteen. The women who joined these early sisterhoods were considered unnatural for choosing to isolate themselves from society. Even if they had no husband or children of their own, women were expected to serve their family. In addition to concerns about a woman’s proper role, there were fears that the sisterhoods too closely resembled Catholic convents (Vicinus 47, 49, 63). Contemporary discussions of the sisterhoods inspired many paintings of nuns and convent life in Anglican and Catholic settings (Casteras 167). From the 1830s through the 1870s, there was a painting of a nun or a convent scene exhibited almost every year at the Royal Academy (Casteras 167). Previous studies of Mariana have discussed Mariana as a nun-figure; however, the painting has not been considered in the context of this larger body of nun imagery. Mariana shares both common themes and compositional devices with these paintings.
As discussed above, Victorian nuns did not conform to contemporary concepts of womanhood. Some depictions of nuns portrayed alternative femininities that could be pursued in the context of the cloister. In Alfred Elmore’s The Novice (1852), the framed picture of St. Teresa represents a life of ecstatic devotion to God (Figure 2). The picture shows St. Teresa kneeling on the ground as a vision emerges from a thick bank of muted gold clouds. St. Teresa is linked to the novice through the mirroring of the dark curved frame with the novice’s wimple. This mirroring suggests that the novice should fill her own mind with an all-consuming devotion to God. In William Powell Frith’s The Novice (1862) there is a similar placement of a female saint, in this case the Virgin Mary (Figure 3). The small statuette can be seen pointing toward a golden heart in the center of her chest, which indicates that it represents the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This particular iteration of Mary was meant to focus the worshipper’s attention on the interior life of Mary and her love for God the Father and Jesus (Catholic University of America “Immaculate Heart of Mary”). In the painting, the relationship between the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the novice is communicated through their gazes. The statuette looks down upon the novice, who in turn looks in awe at what God has revealed to her through prayer.
The relationship between Mariana and the ideal image of womanhood she is offered is more troubled. As in Frith’s The Novice, the Virgin Mary represents an ideal vision of womanhood, but here it is the Virgin of the Annunciation rather than the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Virgin Annunciate symbolizes both chastity and the graceful acceptance of motherhood (Catholic University of America “Virgin Mary”). Mariana is already emulating the first of these qualities, but not by choice. St. Teresa and the Immaculate Heart of Mary give the novices in Elmore and Frith’s paintings something towards which to aspire. The Annunciation, in contrast, simply reiterates Mariana’s perpetual virginity (Sussman 49). While Mariana is forced to follow the example of Mary’s chastity, she is unable to realize her graceful acceptance of motherhood. For Mariana, the Virgin Annunciate thus represents an undesirable and unattainable ideal of womanhood. The disconnection between Mariana and the Virgin Annunciate highlights the fact that Mariana has not willingly chosen her cloister-like existence.
The choice between the outside world and the cloister was highlighted in many paintings of novices, and this choice was often depicted as being somehow forced. These portrayals of novices were informed by popular accounts of women being coerced into joining convents. This cartoon from Punch distills many of the factors that were at play in these discussions, in particular the loss of youth and dowry (Figure 4). Priests were frequently accused of luring young girls into convents only to benefit from their dowries. The dubious nature of this exchange is emphasized in the cartoon by the priest’s wide-eyed stare and the insubstantial appearance of the robes that he offers the girl.
Returning to Elmore’s The Novice, we can see one way in which doubts about the choice between the world and the cloister was portrayed in contemporary paintings. The young novice sits between a window onto the world and a door into the cloister. Her stance suggests that she wishes to return to the world she left behind. Her body is pointed inward towards her new chamber and she has taken up a rosary for prayer, but her head is turned towards the light and sound that pour in from the open window. She would rather imagine a life outside of the cloister than turn her mind toward prayer and devotion as suggested by the image of St. Teresa. The sunny scene visible through the window is balanced by a vision of lifetime devotion and service visible through the door. An older nun, perhaps the Abbess of the convent, is supported by another nun as she makes her way into the novice’s room. The presence of the older nun foreshadows the fact that the novice will spend the rest of her life within the convent’s walls (Casteras 175). This connection is emphasized by the similarity in the two figures’ poses. Both have arched backs and bowed heads, one from sadness and the other from infirmity. Nevertheless, light streams in from the door as well, but it is a softer one and the community represented is one of quiet female companionship. The young novice yearns for something more than that.
The choice between the world and the cloister in Mariana is less distinct. Mariana’s window onto the outside world is also a reminder of her religious duty. The stained glass window of the Annunciation takes up the majority of the main window openings. The remaining portion of the main window is blocked by the thick, tangled growth of trees. The side window similarly combines a religious message with a restricted vision of the outside world. The banner above the helmet states that “In Heaven there is Rest” (Fowle). This message implies that the disquiet that fills Mariana’s days will only cease with her death. The rest of the window reveals a solid brick wall that reiterates Mariana’s constrained existence. There is also no suggestion of a religious community that Mariana could choose to join as there is in Elmore’s The Novice. Rather than a vision of fellow sisters, Mariana only has a private altar to which to turn. Surrounded by signs of her circumscribed life, Mariana retreats within herself and gazes into empty space.
Placing Mariana within the context of popular imagery and fine art inspired by the Tractarian Movement allows us to see new layers of religious meaning within the painting. The painting can be read not simply as a portrayal of a particular character, but as a broader reflection on the redundant woman and the choices the Tractarian Movement offered her.
Angela Parker is a second year art history Master's student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She received her Bachelor's degree in English from Yale University in 2010. Angela's research interests include nineteenth-century art and museum history. She is currently researching the Manchester Art Museum and its founder Thomas Coglan Horsfall for her Master's thesis. In addition to her academic research, she has completed museum education internships at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.<o:p></o:p>
Figure 1. John Everett Millais, Mariana. 1851. Oil on wood. Tate Britain, London. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.
Figure 2. Alfred Elmore, The Novice. 1852. Oil on canvas. Bury Art Gallery and Museum, Lancashire, UK. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.
Figure 3. William Powell Frith, The Novice. 1862. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.
Figure 4. John Leech, “The Kidnapper - A Case for the Police,” Punch, 20 (1851), 129, engraving. “Virgin Vows: The Early Victorian Artists' Portrayal of Nuns and Novices.” By Susan P. Casteras. Victorian Studies 24.2 (Winter 1981): 163. JSTOR. Web. 25 February 2013.
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