St. Cecilia

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1856-1857


◦ Fontana, “Representations of the Kiss.”, 80-88.

◦ George Layard, Tennyson and his Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators, 49-65.

◦ Lewis and Lasner, ed., Poems and Drawings of Elizabeth Siddal

◦ Jan Marsh, “Hoping you will not think me too fastidious: Pre-Raphaelite Artists and the Moxon Tennsyon”, JPRAS 2:1 1989 11-18

◦ WMR, Family Letters, vol. 1, 190.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 107-112.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 48 (no. 83).

Scholarly Commentary


This drawing is perhaps the most celebrated of the series of drawings DGR made to illustrate texts from Tennyson's poetry. The target in this case is “The Palace of Art” (lines 97-100). The difficulty arises because of the erotic intensity of the picture, which (given the source text) appears to represent a (male) angel embracing the ecstatic St. Cecilia. Tennyson's verse is cool to a degree, however. In addition, various commentators have struggled to identify the object on the back of the angel. The traditional interpretation is that this is an angel's wing, but perhaps badly drawn. Layard surveyed the early commentators and decided that the man isn't an angel but a very flesh and blood “man masquerading as an angel”: “some lover, enamoured of the lovely saint, has seen, in her belief of an ever-present guardian angel, opportunity to seek her presence” (see Layard, 58 ).

Layard's response to the sensuality of the drawing is surely right (note as well the soldier in the foreground munching an apple—a clear figural representation of sensuality represented in a negative form, inserted to make a contrast with the central pair of figures). But the object on the man's back may not be an angel's wing (and so the man would be neither angel nor masquerading man), it may well be a shield, and hence the man a knight errant. In any case, the figure of the man in fact distinctly recalls the posture and accoutrements (elaborate cloak and shield) of Sir Galahad in the drawing DGR was making at this time—a drawing that never found its way into the set of drawings that were published with Tennyson's poems in the 1857 Moxon edition.

Rather than what Layard calls the drawing, “a travesty of the story of St. Cecily”, it would represent DGR “allegorizing on his own hook”, and re-interpreting Tennyson's ascetic verse so that the idea of a high spiritual love would be given a fleshly, human inflection. See the commentary for “The Maids of Elfen-Mere” and Fredeman, Correspondence 55. 4.

It may well be that DGR is consciously recalling the entire story of St. Cecilia as it is told in Voragine's collection of saints' lives The Golden Legend . The drawing would represent Cecilia, the patron saint of church music, in an ecstatic state of vision, and the man is Cecilia's husband Valerian, here imagined as appearing to her after his martyr's death (and before Cecilia herself would suffer martyrdom). According to the legend, Cecilia had taken a vow of chastity, and when Valerian was betrothed to her, he agreed to let her keep her vow. He subsequently converted to Christianity.

Production History

DGR created this design in late 1856 for Edward Moxon's illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems (1857). The engraving made from it by Dalziel greatly displeased DGR (see Fredeman, Correspondence 56. 59 and the elaborate instructions to Dalziel that DGR penciled on the progress proof for the illustration). DGR took out his rancor in an epigram.

The price that Dalziel paid to DGR for the drawings is uncertain since various acounts have been given. Most likely is that he was paid £12 for each drawing, though some estimates go as high as £30 (see Fredeman, Correspondence 56. 62n).


WMR reported his impression that “[Tennyson] really liked Rossetti's designs when he saw them . . . but the illustration of St. Cecilia puzzled him not a little, and he had to give up the problem of what it had to do with his verses” ( see WMR, Family Letters vol. 1, 189-190). Tennyson's puzzlement is partly explained by the positioning of the image in the Moxon volume. It is placed at the head of the poem, not alongside its reference text. The decision to place it thus is related to DGR's other drawing for “The Palace of Art”, the design called “King Arthur and the Weeping Queens”


Surtees notes WMR's comment “that Miss Siddal had made a design for the same subject which preceded Rossetti's, and that the ‘detail of invention’ (indicating the death of the Saint) was hers” ( Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 48 ). The location of this design by Siddal is not known


DGR's design presents his distinctive imagining of St. Cecilia from Tennyson's The Palace of Art. The influence of Tennyson's source in Voragine (see above) is highly probable.

  • Or in a clear-wall'd city on the sea
  • Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
  • Wound with white roses, slept St. Cecily;
  • An angel look'd at her.
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