It has to be admitted, gentle reader, that some of the paintings by members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement are rather ridiculous.
Now that I have your attention, today I wanted to write a bit about an image I have always disliked of St. Cecilia, the early Christian martyr and Patron Saint of Musicians, whose feast day is today. The well-known painting of her by J.W. Waterhouse, one of the most legendary of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, has a somewhat interesting recent history. It depicts St. Cecilia having fallen asleep while reading an illuminated book, as she is seated on a stone bench in what looks like a garden on Lake Como. Two angels are shown serenading her, though I wonder whether the effect of their music is causing her nightmares, given the expression on her face. And the two angels themselves do not appear to be particularly happy to be there, either.
What on earth is the point of this picture? It would be easy to criticize the setting, because Cecilia was a member of Roman high society in the capital, rather than in what later became Lombardy, but artists are always given some artistic license with respect to where they place the scene they are depicting. After all, Raphael’s legendary Madonnas, set in the Tuscan countryside and wearing 16th century Italian dress, are not exactly historically accurate portrayals of a young Jewish mother in 1st century A.D. Judea.
Nor is the painting a direct, visual interpretation of the poem “The Palace of Art” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a quote from which accompanied the painting when it was exhibited. The entire poem can be read here, but the following is the relevant passage, or at least, it was for Waterhouse:
Or in a clear-wall’d city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
with white roses, slept Saint Cecily;
An angel look’d at her.
Obviously St. Cecilia has no white roses in her hair in this picture, and there is more than one angel, though the other portions of the poem could be interpreted as being present, or at least suggested.
However the painting still begs the question I asked above: what is the point? There is no theological meaning as to why St. Cecilia is taking a nap inside this imaginary city by the sea. It is simply a pointless assemblage of pretty elements, and the figure of the Christian martyr could just as easily be identified as being Calliope, or indeed no particular woman at all. It is not St. Cecilia’s Christian faith or praise of God that matters here.
A reviewer of the painting at the time of its exhibition at the Royal Academy show of 1895 wrote the following:
In St Cecilia, the important work which represents nearly two years unremitting toil and experiment, the aim is wholly decorative, the colour superb, and the painting swift and direct; that of a man who has reached his goal. The feeling is entirely mediaeval… The effect is decorative first, then somewhat ecclesiastic; entirely removed from realism and the world of our daily life.
This is not to say that all images of St. Cecilia must depict some sort of gruesome aspect of her martyrdom, or that they must be elaborate religious tableaux. Yet when her role in the work of art is reduced to that of nothing more than a beautiful woman striking a pose, then she is little more than a mannequin on which the painter may display his craft, like a dressmaker creating a couture gown. It is fetching and comely, and there is a great deal of art that has gone into its production, but it is not something which imparts any great insight into the nature of salvation, the Faith which St. Cecilia clung to despite all things going against her, or indeed the soul’s search to discern and follow the Will of God, no matter how difficult the path that must be taken.
Waterhouse’s painting is a beautiful image, and yet ultimately it is a superficial one, as indeed is often the case with much of the religious work produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. As artists they may have enjoyed dabbling in Catholic paraphernalia, but in the main they were not Catholics – a fact that comes across quite pointedly in their art. There is something lacking about this piece, which provides nothing of substance whatsoever, and to the extent that no Catholic church would have been satisfied with this commission for a chapel dedicated to St. Cecilia, however beautiful the result. It is certainly a work of art, but one that lacks a soul.