Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB)
Long before the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted their stunners, they endeavored to change the way the world viewed sacred images.
Unfortunately for you, the PRB are my one obsession and the subject of all my university research and writing; research that has culminated into a final project — a play — that at least for right now, I am calling The Bathtub. Because of this I will more than likely return to the subject frequently in my writings here. But it is not my play that I wish to discuss today. Today I would like to explore what our understanding is of the sacred. What do we consider sacred and why? For the Pre-Raphaelites, religious imagery had become generic and mundane, so in true “rebels with a cause” fashion, they decided to shake things up a bit.
The PRB was a nineteenth century (1848) British movement that encompassed visual arts and literature. The movement was started by three school chums in their early twenties named, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. All were disenchanted with what the British Academy had to offer and sought to change the viewer/artists perspective by challenging the imagery of centuries of dogma and the rules of composition. The name “Pre-Raphaelite” is confusing, I know, so let me explain what they were trying to convey by choosing that name. It does not mean that they are artists who came before the fifteenth century High Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino or Raphael. It also does not mean, as is the usual misconception, that they wished to go back to a time before Raphael. It means that the founding members believed that the decline of creativity in art happened with the followers of Raphael or the Pre-Raphaelites.
To Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais, the period after Raphael was when the restraints of the academy and the demands of the patron began to dictate art and not passion or creativity. They chose, at least during the beginning of the movement, to primarily focus on narratives from the bible and literature. One wildly controversial painting from this time was Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) by Millais.
The narrative of the painting is centered around the boy Jesus who has been injured in his fathers’ carpentry shop. The wound he has sustained is to the palm which is meant to foreshadow the crucifixion. Millais chooses to treat the figures realistically rather than in the academic way, which is to idealize them. Notice the feet, dirty with broken toenails and the detailed lines on Joseph’s face along with the veins in his overworked sinewy arms (figure 3). By most accounts of the day, people were horrified by the painting when it was exhibited in the Royal Gallery. The critics; however, were much worse than the average viewer, consider this written by Charles Dickens (yes, that Charles Dickens) in 1850:
You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness. that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England … Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature. limb or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s.
High praise indeed (sarcasm)! When I read this by Dickens I try to remember that he had his own demons to fight and that his hateful words are probably coming from a place of guilt and self-loathing, but we will save the complexities of Dickens for another day. I am curious to know what you, the viewer, think of Christ?
Do the dirty toenails offend you?
Does the work feel disrespectful, blasphemous even?
There was and still is a debate amongst scholars as to whether sacred imagery is made more effective by being realistically relatable or by being idealized; which, preserves it’s heavenly or otherworldly mystique. My opinion as an art historian falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The academic treatment of sacred images gives me a sense that I am witnessing something miraculous and supernatural, but looking at Christ in the House of His Parents inspires me to be a better person. It conveys a sense of suffering that moves me and it makes me want to help those less fortunate. Christ is real and its ugliness manifests as something beautiful in the eyes of those who truly want to relate.
What do you think?
 Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.82
Kendra Johnson-Thompson holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Art History from Louisiana State University in Shreveport. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Liberal Arts with an expected graduation in 2014. One of the highlights of her academic career is securing an internship at the Bossier Arts Council which led to a permanent position as the Event Coordinator. She is an active member of the Highland community where she lives with her family and 3 furbabies.