Ecce Ancilla Domini!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849 November - 1853 January
Subject: Annunciation
Classification Scheme of Iconographical Features: Annunciation
Model: Christina Rossetti sat for the Virgin
Model: Miss Love, a professional model, sat for the Virgin's hair
Model: Three professional models, Maitland, Lambert, and White, sat for the angel Gabriel.
Model: William Michael Rossetti and Thomas Woolner modeled for the angel Gabriel's head.
Repainting: 1874
DGR did some very slight retouching in 1874, when Graham bought the painting. DGR probably oversaw the restretching of the picture at this time, when it was given its present frame. “The original frame evidently bore latin mottoes, copies from a brass or brass-rubbing owned by F. G. Stephens, which were ‘Popish’ in sentiment” ( The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1974, 73.).


◦ Beegel, “Mary's Girlhood”, JPRAS II.2 (May 1982), 1-6.

◦ Bentley, “Light, Architecture, and Awe”, Ariel 7 (1976), 22-30.

◦ Bentley, “Rossetti's Ave”, Victorian Poetry 15 (1977)21-35.

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 100-101.

◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 55-58 .

◦ Ghose, DGR and Contemporary Criticism, 29-41.

◦ Grieve, Art of DGR: The Pre-Raphaelite Period 1848-1850, 12-24.

◦ Marillier, An Illustrated Memorial, 25-27.

Masterpieces of Rossetti (Gowans and Gray), 8.

◦ Mégroz, DGR: Painter Poet, 82, 149-51.

The Pre-Raphaelites Tate 1974, 73.

◦ Radford, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2.

◦ Ruskin, “The Three Colours of Pre-Raphaelitism”, Works of John Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn, XXXIV, 166-67.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 132-34.

◦ Shefer, “Woman at the Window, ”, 17-18.

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 19-24.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 12-14 (no. 44).

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, no. 29.

◦ Waugh, Rossetti: His Life and Works, 32-34, 136.

Scholarly Commentary


The painting, a companion piece to The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, occupies a key place among the large number of works DGR conceived and executed early in his career on the subject of the Virgin. Many of these works, like this one, deliberately cultivate effects of pastiche in relation to Italian primitive art. As his work developed, the figure of the Virgin was replaced by a rich array of more secular female figures. All these women function in some kind of magical way for DGR, whether as benevolent Beatrices and blessed damozels, or as more threatening presences: e.g., Lilith, Monna Vanna, Astarte Syriaca.

The idea for this unusual treatment of the Virgin may have come from DGR's reading in Anna Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art where she refers to “a beautiful miniature” in the Bibliotheque Nationale: “The Virgin seated on the side of her bed sinks back alarmed, almost fainting; the angel in a robe of crimson, with a white tunic, stands before her, half turning away, and grasping his sceptre in his hand” (vol. 1, 125).

For further information see commentary for the Tate Gallery oil.

Production History

DGR's initial sketch for the picture was begun on 25 November 1849. By 8 December he had begun the painting itself and he worked steadily at it until the opening of the Portland Gallery Exhibition on 13 April 1850 ( WMR, P.R.B. Brotherhood, 29-71). Like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, the picture was being done for the Royal Academy exhibition, but again DGR backed away from offering it. As the picture did not sell, he reworked parts of it in December 1859 ( WMR, P.R.B. Brotherhood, 83-85), and he made final changes in January 1853 after it had been purchased by MacCraken ( WMR, P.R.B. Brotherhood, 99). It was at this time that DGR renamed the picture The Annunciation, “to guard against the imputation of ‘popery’”, as WMR wrote in his diary.


The usual paraphernalia of the Annunciation are present, several of the accessories having been brought over directly from this work's companion piece, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Those (as it were) intramural connections underscore the programmatic character of DGR's painting.

As with DGR's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, this work's standard Christian iconography is handled in a pastiche manner. What this means is that both paintings represent an act of pictorial rather than religious devotion. The subject of DGR's picture is art rather than religion, but an art that is invested with spiritual values and commitments.


DGR's peculiar vision of the Virgin--suffused by her wan-ness and her pale uncertainty, marked out by the strange, more-than-shy turn of her head, which gazes down and away from any direct intercourse with the angelic messenger--reveals Ecce Ancilla Domini! as belonging to an alternative or counter-tradition of religious painting. It has already been noted elsewhere how Vasari's account of Giotto's Annunciation may have strongly influenced DGR's particular conception of the epochal moment depicted in this scene, offering DGR a ready instance of another, more demur type of Virgin, one who “seems almost ready to take flight, so great is her fear and astonishment” (Life of Giotto). Additional impetus for DGR's unusual treatment of the Virgin in Ecce Ancilla Domini! may also have come from his readings in Anna Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art, where he would have found Jameson making reference to “a beautiful miniature” in the Bibliotheque Nationale: “The Virgin seated on the side of her bed sinks back alarmed, almost fainting; the angel in a robe of crimson, with a white tunic, stands before her, half turning away, and grasping his sceptre in his hand” (vol. 1, 125).

Building upon this reading, in which Ecce Ancilla Domini! self-consiously invokes a counter-tradition of iconography through its use of pastiche, it should also be noted that DGR's vision of the Annunciation shares many qualities in common with Pater's haunting description of Botticelli's “peevish madonnas,” madonnas which “conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty.” Pater, writing in one of the more antinomian chapters of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, finds that Botticelli's saintly figures are “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” And it is precisely in this Paterian wistfulness--in this apparent contemplation of a great refusal--that DGR's Virgin exhibits her kinship with Botticelli's distinctive madonnas, who, according to Pater, “shrink from the pressure of the divine child, and plead in unmistakeable undertones for a warmer, lower humanity.

Pater, of course, locates a similar fusion of realist and visionary tendencies at the center of the art of both DGR and of Botticelli, and it is to this strangely fused status that the distinctive formal ambiguities of Ecce Ancilla Domini! may be attributed. DGR, according to Pater, finds the means to materialize the spiritual and to spiritualize the material, so that what once was spirit achieves a concrete definition and what once was corporeal is intensely clarified. Sometimes, as in the case of certain poems and, as in the case of DGR's pictorial re-imagining of the Annunciation, this fusion is so intense that “insanity of realism” occurs (“Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 233): “The insanity which follows a vivid poetic anthropomorphism like that of Rossetti may be noted here and there in his work, in a forced and almost grotesque materializing of abstractions” (“Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 232). Rossetti's painting of the Annunciation moment bears witness to this sort of cataclysmic exchange between spiritual and material planes. Ecce Ancilla Domini! records the trauma of such an event in its abiding sense of the effect of a divine intervention in nature--which is nothing less than catastrophic--in its marked contrast between the hieratic figure of the angel and the contorted body of the Virgin; in the horrible pitching angle of the room and the bed, from which, it seems, the girl must soon slide towards the chill of that divine contact from which she so visibly shrinks; and in its strange, seemingly obsessional series of white variations, which suggest the presence of inexplicable yet plainly purposive agency.


The picture has its source in the gospel of Luke I: 26-35, especially verses 28-29.

The painting relates directly to the sestet of DGR's sonnet Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture) I., which DGR wrote to accompany the painting that pairs with this one, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

DGR's striking representation of the Virgin probably owes as much to Vasari's report of Giotto's Annunciation in his Life of that artist as it does to paintings and images that DGR saw: “The Virgin seems almost ready to take flight, so great is her fear and astonishment as she receives the salutation of Gabriel”.

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