The Passover in the Holy Family (For a Drawing)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869 September
Date: 1849-1856
Subject: The Childhood of Jesus
Rhyme: abbaaccadedeed
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Elizabeth Siddal was the model for the Virgin.
Model: The old family servant Williams was the model for Zachariah, as he had been for Joachim in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.
Model: unknown (Christ painted from a boy from Saint Martin's School)


◦ Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’” (1977), 28-29

◦ Grieve, The Art of DGR: Watercolours and Drawings 34-36

◦ Surtees, A Cataologue Raisonné I. 40-41

The Pre–Raphaelites , Tate 1984, 274-275.


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


Like DGR's texts and pictures associated with the Virgin Mary, this work focuses on a crucial feature of Christian devotional symbolism. The point here is to represent the structure of typological symbolism. As is always the case with DGR, however, the approach is historicist and even ethnographic.

The responses to the poem of Coventry Patmore and John Ruskin (DGR had meant the painting for the latter) are extremely interesting and important. For Patmore the picture's symbolism seemed vague and obscure, while for Ruskin there was no symbolism at all. As Bentley observes, however, both might have failed to grasp the symbolic structure because of its Catholic foundations, which are so antithetical to “the spirit of Protestant literalism” (see Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’”, 28 ).

The picture thus helps to explain both the difference and the continuity between his early work, with its Christian preoccupations, and his later work, where pagan materials get more elaborated. DGR is interested in Christianity because it is a mythos of real spiritual presence and not of merely symbolic forms; and he is interested in “Pre-Raphaelite” or Medieval Christianity because he saw in that culture the signs of a belief in real spiritual presence. For DGR, the Renaissance (and its attendant religious reformations) represented a great collapse of spiritual values and the emergence of “soulless self-reflections of man's skill” in art and culture.

DGR's poem replicates what he told Patmore (in a letter of 7 November 1855) about the painting to which the poem refers: “Its chief claim to interest, if successful when complete, would be as a subject which must have occurred during every year of the life led by the Holy Family, and which I think must bear its meaning broadly and instantly—not as you say ‘remotely’—on the very face of it,—in the one sacrifice really typical of the other. In this respect—its actuality as an incident no less than as a scriptural type—I think you will acknowledge that it differs entirely from Herbert's some year's back, Millais' more recently” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 55. 54 ). (This letter shows that DGR assumes Patmore's familiarity with typological symbolism.)

In its Victorian context, where the disjunction between primitive Christian attitudes necessarily clashes with their more attenuated contemporary residues, the sestet of the sonnet strongly suggests that more is “prefigured” in the scene and the poem than the original symbolic system would have been aware of. DGR's poem is acutely conscious of cultural belatedness. As such, the foreboding attitudes represented in all three figures come to suggest not only the future life of Jesus, especially his crucifixion, but the drained state of culture in nineteenth-century England and Europe. The figure of the young Jesus is especially interesting, for the poem suggests that he may be already aware of the death that lies in store for him. That typological situation in the Christian mythos turns the boy Jesus into a “type” of DGR, the contemporary artist who experiences the cultural death suggested in the poem.

Textual History: Composition

The sonnet was written in September 1869 (see DGR's letter to WMR of 14 September where he says that he has sent “the printer 7 new sonnets” including this one: Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 154 ). A fragment of a letter written to DGR's sister Maria on 10 September shows that he was seeking her help with details about the Passover ceremony. The manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum was printer's copy for the first printing in September 1869.

Production History

DGR did a first design in 1849, though its location is not known. In 1854 Ruskin saw two designs and commissioned one as a watercolour. By 1856 DGR had not finished it, as WMR told William Bell Scott in a letter (“He has on hand the subject, long since projected, of a Passover in the Holy Family” (see Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti, 63 ). This is presumably the version that Ruskin took away in its incomplete state, the received unfinished watercolour. Another different design was offered to Ruskin but rejected.


Like the picture it attends upon, the poem centers in the iconographical symbolism of Christian typology. In this symbolic structure events from the Old Testament prefigure New Testament events, as type to antitype. Cultic practices that celebrate the typological events thus carry, themselves, typological meanings. The system is ultimately founded on the Christian belief—derived from the Jewish idea of Messiah—that Jesus's life fulfilled the Old Testament promises associated with Messiah.

For DGR the picture treated the Passover in “its actuality as an incident no less than as a ‘scriptural’ type”. The patent symbolic character of the picture, however, seemed “too remote and unobvious” to Patmore, and wholly nonsymbolic to Ruskin ( Ruskin. Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelitism 139-140 ). Bentley shrewdly observes “that Rossetti's essentially Catholic conception of ‘scriptural types’ or figurae—learned, very likely, from Dante—is in direct opposition to the spirit of Protestant literalism“ (see Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’” 28 ). All of the painting's accessories relate to the redemptive action that gets played out in the life and death of Jesus.

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


An important background text to the sonnet is the first chapter of Luke, and in particular the Benedictus of Zacharias, which is one of the most commonly cited prefigurative texts in the New Testament. The ritual of the Passover is set forth in Exodus 12:1-13.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 3-1867.s78.raw.xml