Mary in the House of St. John

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1856-1859
Model: Ruth Herbert is the model for Mary
Model: For St. John the head is said to be taken from H. W. Fisher, the father of H. A. L. Fisher, former Warden of New College, Oxford.


◦ Elzea, Bancroft and Related Collections, 106-107.

◦ Grieve, Art of DGR: Watercolors and Drawings, 33-35.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 99-100.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 162-163.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I65-67.

Scholarly Commentary


Like Ecce Ancilla Domini!, this picture (in both of its major finished forms) is a striking experiment with a limited palette. The faces (and hands) of Mary and John echo the distant sky, which is the emblem of the eschatalogical moment they are waiting for. The rest of the picture—all its merging browns and determinate purples— relates to those two brightnesses via the central image of the crucifix, which hovers between them in the spatial representation.

The implicit position of the viewer is notable. We are located at the further interior of the room whose window centers the picture. This means we are in the deepest place of darkness, although we are aware of both sources of light. The city, Jerusalem, lies outside and below in a shadow that replicates the position of the picture's viewer. DGR thus turns the window in his painting into a figure of his picture and the (enlightening) office it performs.

Production History

In 1849 DGR planned a triptych with the center panel The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and the right side panel “the Virgin in St. John's house after the crucifixion”. The left panel would have shown “the Virgin planting a lily and a rose” (see WMR, Preraphaelite Diaries and Letters 13 ). DGR did not complete this project, and the left panel eventually became Mary Nazarene. There is an early pencil sketch (1853) that may have been done in connection with this first plan for the work.

In April 1856 he reconceived his old plan and projected a drawing on the subject of Mary in John's house after the crucifixion. The drawing was to be for Ellen Heaton, and it seems to have been completed later in 1856. In late 1858 he was finishing the watercolour for Lady Trevelyan (the copy in the Delaware-Bancroft collection). Shortly afterwards, in 1859, he made another watercolour for Ellen Heaton (the copy now in the Tate Gallery). (See DGR's letters to Heaton of 12 April 1856 and to Lady Trevelyan of 6 November 1858, quoted in Fredeman, Correspondence 56. 23, and 58. 23 ). DGR exhibited the picture at the Hogarth Club in January 1859 (see the entry for 3 January 1859 in Surtees, Diaries of George Price Boyce ).


WMR's view, that it is “one of his best conceived and most impressive works” (WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 17-18), was widely shared among DGR's contemporaries, and DGR was induced to make at least two copies for different people. There was a pencil drawing praised by Ruskin that is now untraced. Of the two major versions that come down to us, DGR's view was that Ellen Heaton's“is the more forcible and Lady T[revelyan]'s the more finished” (see letter to Ellen Heaton, 25 October 1863, Fredeman, Correspondence 63. 95 ).


The scene is dominated by the image of the crucifix in the window. The time of day is dusk, the period after the crucifixion. John is represented “with his tablets & writing implements” (letter to Heaton, 12 April 1856), meant to suggest that he is working on his gospel. He is striking a flint to light the lamp that the Virgin is filling with oil. These actions are allegorical, of course, signalling the fact that mankind is entering the twilight-time between Christ's death and his resurrection. As DGR told Ellen Heaton in his letter, “the motto on the frame might be ‘a little while & ye shall not see me, & again a little while & ye shall see me’”. The spinning-wheel is an emblem of a certain period of time that has yet to be accomplished.

Thomas Sulman saw an 1856 version of this picture when he was DGR's student at the Working Men's College. His description is interesting: the scene he says “was “the first night after the Crucifixion.” John the disciple had taken Mary to his own home. A window looked out over a distant Calvary bereft of its crosses. Mary was lighting the watch lamp, John was bent pondering a scroll of Isaiah. A stormy sunset flooded the picture with purple light. The whole, as I remember now, was very impressive. I think there must have been frequent amazing failure in the drawing, but the colour was so deep and ‘Belliniesque’ in its glow that all its faults were condoned after one impatient glance” (quoted in “A Memorable Art Class”, in Good Words vol. 35, 550 .


The picture illustrates DGR's Ave, 64-73. Its Christological context is the waiting time after the resurrection, when Christians anticipate the second coming of the Lord. That larger context gets referenced in the rest of the verse paragraph in Ave (see especially 83-85). There is, however, no specific New Testament or apocryphal sources for the scene DGR depicts.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s110.raw.xml