For the Holy Family by Michelangelo (in the National Gallery)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1880
Rhyme: abbaaccadeefdf
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Sources of the Work:
Pictorial Object: Madonna and Child with Angels
Artist: A Master of Manchester
Location: National Gallery


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Ballads and Sonnets first edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


This is one of DGR's most difficult sonnets, partly because of the strange scene depicted in the octave, partly because of the nuanced syntax of the sestet. It is a poem, clearly, about the withholding of a knowledge which we now—knowing the history of Jesus' life—appear to have. Essential to the poem's argument is that readers will (and should) be left in doubt and uncertainty about what we thought we knew about these well-known things, as well as about this poem and this painting where the matters are taken up again.

Much of the difficulty can be avoided if one bears in mind two things: first, that the word “Still” (line 9) primarily signifies that the events shortly to be described have not yet occurred so far as the event depicted in the octave is concerned; and second, that the four events cited in the sestet are being presented in temporal terms. The words “yet” (line 11) and “and yet” (line 13) are not primarily logical adversatives but temporal markers. The force of “and yet” is that this is the culminant of the four events, the event that would mark the definitive defeat of “the serpent”.

All that being granted, however, the sonnet remains formidable. Several of its most disorienting features may be remarked. The word “Still” (line 9), for example, is being worked for a contemporary (nineteenth-century) reference—a wordplay that is common in DGR. In that temporal frame, all of the events depicted in the sonnet have yet to occur, most especially the death and hell-harrowing and the final defeat of evil by “The Seed o' the woman”. Notable as well is the association of the angels in the octave with those angels who fell from heaven because of an inordinate desire for knowledge. Most puzzling, perhaps, is the sonnet's strange point of view, as the first line makes immediately clear. At first the omniscient vantage seems to signal an address of God the Father to His “Son”, but the rest of the poem—particularly the sestet—evidently proceeds from a human point of view. Organized in that way, the knowledge that the speaker appears to have must be judged by the reader as “Still” incomplete and uncertain. The poem then becomes a drama where we see that neither the withholding nor the gaining of knowledge can escape to a moment of redemptive fulfillment.

The sonnet springs from the first line, which references the various allusions to and quotations from the Old Testament prophets, in particular Isaiah, in the gospels—and especially in the Gospel of Matthew. As the octave shows, these prophecies are used in the New Testament as forecasts of the suffering and death of Jesus. Prophetic as they are, the foreknowing of these texts can make no difference in the outcome of the living events. The painting, which is unfinished, is thus presented by the poem as a kind of commentary on all of the prevenient biblical texts. In the picture the Virgin is withholding a book from the gaze of the Child Jesus, and behind the mother and child a group of angels are pouring over a prophetic scroll with puzzled looks.

As usual, DGR reads the painting for its contemporary significance. Like the painter, DGR understands that a final redemption “Still” remains to be realized, and that it is somehow—mysteriously—bound up with “the woman” who is the center of the picture. Unlike Eve, the Virgin here withholds the temptation of ultimate knowledge. Note that DGR refers to “Her Tree of Life”, not “The Tree of Life”, which is the received reading out of the Book of Genesis.

DGR's comment on the sonnet in a letter to his mother of 23 December 1880 is important: “I will subjoin, for your favorable notice, a sonnet I have done on Mr. Angelo's Holy Family in the National Gallery. In this picture the Virgin is withdrawing from the Child the book which contains the prophecy of his sufferings—I suppose that of Isaiah. The idea is a most beautiful one, and behind this group are angels perusing a scroll. Shields was helpful to me in the interpretation of this. I possess another photograph having the same intention in the actions of the Virgin and Child, by Sandro Botticelli; but whether the motif was a usual one I do not further know.”

Textual History: Composition

DGR seems to have written the poem in 1880. Three manuscripts survive, a corrected fair copy at Princeton (with the prose note), an earlier corrected fair copy from which it was made (in the Rosenbach Library, without the prose note), and the fair copy he sent in the 1880 letter to his mother. The latter varies from the received (1881) text only in one small reading in line 4.

Printing History

First printed in the Athenaeum (1 January 1881), then reprinted shortly afterwards in the first edition of the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.


The painting then attributed to Michelangelo is variously titled. DGR's interest in the picture appears to be directly related to its unfinished state. The picture is now known to be by someone else, but the artist has not been identified. He has been called “A Master of Manchester” because of the picture's association with Manchester. The picture is in the National Gallery.


The idea that prophetic knowledge is dangerous, even destructive, runs through all of DGR's work. See for example “Aspecta Medusa ” and “Cassandra”.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 10-1880.raw.xml