Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (For a Drawing)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869
Date: 1853-1859
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde
Meter: iambic pentamenter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Burne-Jones modelled for the head of Christ.
Model: Ruth Herbert modelled for Mary Magdalene


◦ Fontana, “Mary Magdalene,” 88-100.

◦ Grieve, The Art of DGR: Watercolours and Drawings 43-45.

◦ Leggett, “A Picture and Its Poem”, 241-246.

◦ Marsh, DGR: Painter and Poet, 196.

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 111-112.

The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1984, 284.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 162-167.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 62-65 (no. 109).


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Poems 1881 First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


The poem (and the composite work it belongs to) represents another example of the “truth” of art as that idea was being pursued by a critic like Ruskin and by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. In contrast to the sonnets Mary's Girlhood or The Passover in the Holy Family, this sonnet does not represent the structure of symbological or typological thought; it displays the aptness of a more realistic and psychological treatment of artistic materials.

But the sonnet performs other functions if read in the context of the drawing named in its title. Its relation to that picture is underscored by the word “draws” in line 10—a word DGR frequently puns upon in his verse. In this frame of reference, “Mary Magdalene” is not the biblical character but the visioned creature of DGR's drawing. That Magdalene is an artistic creature who figures centrally in an argument DGR is making, in this very composite work, about an aesthetic ideal DGR wishes to define and promote. The argument is visibly instantiated in the drawing as a collision between two styles of representation: a realist style here associated with the street and its extreme pictorial recession; and an iconic style associated with the head of Jesus. The latter, aggressively “out of drawing”, enters the picture as a recollection of primitivist pictorial methods. DGR and the other Pre-Raphaelites had been attacked, when they first appeared on the scene in the early 1850s, for their ignorance of the rules of perspective. The truth, of course, was that they wanted to call into question the authority of those rules, and to argue the expressive power of more primitive styles. DGR in particular associated the iconic style with the power of art to transcend reality.

Textual History: Composition

This was one of the “seven new sonnets” DGR wrote and sent to his printer in mid-September 1869 (see DGR's letter to WMR, 14 September 1869). The manuscript at Princeton was almost certainly printer's copy for the text first printed in the A2 Proofs in mid-September 1869. The sonnet was written shortly before.

Textual History: Revision

The sonnet went through its proof texts in 1869-70 with only one minor (punctuation) change.

Production History

The pen and ink drawing is dated by DGR 1858, though he had made sketches as early as 1853, and was still working on it in 1859. There are several versions of the picture, including an unfinished oil replica.


Greatly admired by Ruskin, the drawing was one of DGR's most celebrated (see Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 162-167 ). This reputation for the drawing affected the favorable sense of the sonnet as well.


DGR sketched the scene of the picture for Mrs. Clapburn, though it is clear that he was describing one of his replica paintings, not this drawing: “The scene represents two houses opposite each other, one of which is that of Simon the Pharisee, where Christ and Simon, with other guests, are seated at table. In the opposite house a great banquet is held, and feasters are trooping to it in cloth of gold and crowned with flowers. . . .Mary Magdalene. . .has been in this procession, but has suddenly turned aside at the sight of Christ, and is pressing forward up the steps of Simon's house, and casting the roses from her hair. Her lover and a woman have followed her out of the procession and are laughingly trying to turn her back. The woman bars the door with her arm. Those nearest the Magdalene in the group of feasters have stopped short in wonder and are looking after her, while a beggar girl offers them flowers from her basket. A girl near the front of the procession has caught sight of Mary and waves her garland to turn her back. Beyond this the narrow street abuts on the high road and river. The young girl seated on the steps is a little beggar who has had food given her from within the house, and is wondering to see Mary go in there, knowing her as a famous woman of the city. Simon looks disdainfully at her, and the servant who is setting a dish on the table smiles, knowing her too. Christ looks toward her from within, waiting till she shall reach him. A fawn crops the vine on the wall where Christ is seen, and some fowls gather to share the beggar girl's dinner, giving a kind of equivalent to Christ's words: ‘Yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs’.” (from a July 1865 letter to Mrs. Clapburn, quoted in Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 62 ). This description defines the Christological symbology. It does not point out that this figurative material also operates at a second-order level, as a quasi-allegorical commentary or programmatic statement of DGR's ideas about art.

Printing History

The text was first set in type in mid-September 1869 for the A2 Proofs of what would eventually be published as the 1870 Poems.


Jan Marsh has noted the picture's indebtedness to Dürer's “Christ Before the People” from his Grand Passion.


The general literary context for the sonnet is the gospel of Luke, chapter 7 (especially verses 36-47). DGR “realizes” the scene (in both drawing and poem) with far more detail than Luke provides; indeed, DGR's is a re-imagining of the events alluded to in Luke, a highly concrete suggestion of what might have happened.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1