Tag Archives: Death

Love, Blood and Savagery in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti

10 Nov

These four canvases by Botticelli hide a strangely dark and cruel tale inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part one: Nastagio meets the woman and the knight in the pine forest of Ravenna, 1483, tempera on wood

Tormented by unrequited love, a young nobleman by the name of Nastagio Degli Onesti flees his hometown of Ravenna searching for some faraway place where he wouldn’t be thinking and dreaming of her – the beautiful haughty damsel who rejects him so cruelly over and over again. She enjoys rejecting him and seeing him suffer, and he tried suicide on a few occasions but all the attempts were all unsuccessful. Nastagio is tired from the unending blows of rejection and not even wanderlust can stir his dead, tired, lovelorn soul and his travel stops in a little place called Chiassi, a seaport a few miles away from Ravenna. It was the beginning of May and evening was approaching when Nastagio wandered into the dark mystic pine woods: “It chanced one day, he being come thus well nigh to the beginning of May and the weather being very fair, that, having entered into thought of his cruel mistress, he bade all his servants leave him to himself, so he might muse more at his leisure, and wandered on, step by step, lost in melancholy thought, till he came [unwillingly] into the pine-wood. The fifth hour of the day was well nigh past and he had gone a good half mile into the wood, remembering him neither of eating nor of aught else…” (*)

The distance, the change of scenery, nought could stop him from thinking of his cruel-hearted damsel in Ravenna; instead of beauties of nature, he only sees her pretty countenance, instead of the scent of the fragrant pine trees, he only breathes in her name from afar and breathes out desperation and longing. Ahhh…. Deep in mournful reveries that tear his heart even further, Nastagio “heard a terrible great wailing and loud cries uttered by a woman; whereupon, his dulcet meditation being broken, he raised his head to see what was to do and marvelled to find himself among the pines; then, looking before him, he saw a very fair damsel come running, naked through a thicket all thronged with underwood and briers, towards the place where he was, weeping and crying sore for mercy and all dishevelled and torn by the bushes and the brambles. At her heels ran two huge and fierce mastiffs, which followed hard upon her and ofttimes bit her cruelly, whenas they overtook her; and after them he saw come riding upon a black courser a knight arrayed in sad-coloured armour, with a very wrathful aspect and a tuck in his hand, threatening her with death in foul and fearsome words.” This is the scene from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (fifth day, eighth story) which Botticelli has depicted in the first panel of the four-part series. I love the different phases of narration depicted in a single painting; in the background on the left we see Nastagio’s servants and then the tent, then we see Nastagio walking alone in the woods, and then right in the centre is the horrid encounter between Nastagio and the poor naked damsel. Having no sword or other weapon in hand, Nastagio picked up a branch, trying to defend the lady.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part two: Killing the Woman, 1483, tempera on wood

And now, in the background of the second panel, we again see the scene that had happened but minutes before; the woman being chased by an evil knight on a white horse. Now, the woman is killed and her body lies on the grass and the knight, angry faced but also seemingly accustomed to the actions, is tearing her flesh and ripping her organs out. Nastagio looks away in horror and the gesture of his arms shows how horrified and disgusted and bewildered he is by the strange scene that awoke him from his meditative reverie. Boccaccio writes: “This sight filled Nastagio’s mind at once with terror and amazement“. Dogs are eating her organs and now, on a moist grass of a dark pine forest, lies the naked dead body of a beautiful woman whose last breaths and words he had witnessed, and yet he was unable to save her from “anguish and death.” You would think that Renaissance was all about harmony and elevated themes, or so we were taught in grammar school, but what Botticelli has depicted here is a wild, untamed flow of savagery, the Dionysian element trying to stir the perfect Apollonian world of Renaissance; world of knowledge and reason is now tainted with blood, screams and torture.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part three: The banquet in the forest, 1483, tempera on wood

The knight then explains to Nastagio the strange, barbarous scene that Nastagio had witnessed. Once upon a time, in days when Nastagio was but a child, the knight, whose name is Guido degli Anastagi, also lived in Ravenna and was also suffering from unrequited love. He loved a damsel who was as cruel and haughty as Nastagio’s beloved is, and who also enjoyed tormenting him, enjoyed to see him suffer from rejection. Unable to take it anymore, death seemed dearer to Guido then such a miserable, lovelorn existence, and he took his life. The damsel was pleased that such was the power of her beauty and charm, and she shed not a tear, but very soon she fell ill and died. Having no remorse before her death for her cruel behavior towards Guido, she was condemned to eternity in hell. Guido is also there, having committed the sin of suicide. And their punishment is intertwined; every Friday he has to chase her through the forest with the dogs, kill her and rip out her heart and feed it to the dogs. A cruel, cold, little heart which was incapable of love; that is her sin.

This repetitive punishment occurs every Friday and will repeat every Friday for as many years as there were months that the lady rejected Guido. Fascinated by this discovery, the following Friday Nastagio invites his family and friends for a little gathering, a party, and the cruel damsel whom he loves is also there. This is the third scene. Party is disturbed by the same savage ceremony of damned lovers and all the guests see the lady die again and her heart being ripped out. The Knight Guido again tells the crowd of their punishment in hell and it makes an impact on people, especially the females who teary eyed suddenly feel more loving and gentle. Nastagio’s beloved, the daughter of Paolo Traversiari, suddenly feels guilt and regret for her past actions and decides to marry Nastagio, fearing the same destiny might await her in case her cruel rejection of his love perseveres.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part four: Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483, tempera on wood

The fourth panel, perhaps the dullest one, shows Nastagio’s wedding to the once haughty pretty wealthy maiden. Well, she is still pretty and wealthy, but more down to earth and perhaps more afraid of hell’s flames. She sends her maid to tell Nastagio that “she was ready to do all that should be his pleasure“. The scenery and its connection to the story is fascinating; in first two panels the setting is the wild, dark, mysterious pine forest where Nastagio wanders into because he is daydreaming and not paying attention to where he is going, so he walks into the woods as in a dream. The third panel is half-half; woods are still present in the background behind a long white-clothed dinner table. And then, after the moment of cruelty – the killing – is over, the setting goes to a more classical, polite, rational space; a banquet celebrating the marriage. Dense, repetitive row of trees gives a sense of depth and, along with the figure of the knight, and the emphasised narrative element of the painting, are all reminders of the Gothic art of the previous centuries, but it strangely fits the mood of the story.

Boccaccio’s tales from “Decameron” were suppose to carry a wise, education message to them and in this story the message is not to reject love because everyone deserves to be loved and have the right to love. Women should learn from the cruel damsel’s behavior and not follow in her footsteps. It is a sin not to love. Nastagio and his lady live happily ever after, but this isn’t the only positive outcome of the event, oh no, suddenly “all the ladies of Ravenna became so fearful by reason thereof, that ever after they were much more amenable than they had before been to the desires of the men.” Did no one found it strange that the only reason to return someone’s affection was the fear of suffering the same damnation? It’s interesting how some things sound so normal in these old tales, while they are utterly bizarre in our day and age.

The four pictures were commissioned in 1483 by Antonio Pucci, a wealthy merchant from Florence, for the occasion of the wedding of his son Giannozzo with Lucretia Bini. The theme was most likely chosen by Pucci himself and the paintings were intended for the bedroom of the newlyweds. Why, yes, a nude lady being killed by a knight and having her heart ripped out… quite a soothing, romantical scene to gaze at before bedtime and to see the first thing in the morning. An applause please, for Antonio Pucci’s wonderful aesthetic sense. The theme was chosen for its happy ending, I mean, they do get married in the end, but still. Now the paintings are, luckily, not gracing the walls of any poor couple’s bedroom, they are in Museo del Prado.

 

Lermontov: I see a coffin, black and sole, it waits: why to detain the world?

6 Nov

A beautiful melancholy poem that the Russian Romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov wrote in 1830 when he was fifteen going on his sixteenth year. This little poem already shows Lermontov’s sadness and disillusionment in life and the world around him, and, looking back, these kind of little teenage poems were the seed which eventually grew into his novel “A Hero of Our Time” which was published in 1840.

“Years pass me by like dreams.”

Friedrich von Amerling, Young girl, 1834

Loneliness

It’s Hell for us to draw the fetters

Of life in alienation, stiff.

All people prefer to share gladness,

And nobody – to share grief.

 

As a king of air, I’m lone here,

The pain lives in my heart, so grim,

And I can see that, to the fear

Of fate, years pass me by like dreams;

 

And comes again with, touched by gold,

The same dream, gloomy one and old.

I see a coffin, black and sole,

It waits: why to detain the world?

 

There will be not a sad reflection,

There will be (I am betting on)

Much more gaily celebration

When I am dead, than – born.

Poem found here.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Living is only a part … what of?

13 Oct

Today I am sharing some stanzas from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Requiem” which touched me deeply. If you search for Rilke’s Requiem, you are likely to find the one written for his painter-friend Paula Modersohn-Becker, but for me, this “Requiem” written for Gretel Kottmeyer is more poignant and poetic. On 20 November 1900, in a letter from his future wife Clara Westhoff (he married her in March 1901), Rilke received news of the death of Clara’s friend Gretel Kottmeyer, the “poor girl who has died in the South”. Touched by Clara’s words and compassionate with her sorrow, Rilke at once started composing in his head what will be his first great Requiem, published in his poetry collection “The Book of Images”. The Requiem was dedicated to Clara and Rilke also imagined her to be the one narrating the poem, she is the voice to tell the tale. The verses I have shared here truly make me tremble, both my body and soul, and I love that Rilke views death as something greater, better than life, not something we should dread but something to look forward to as returning to our true selves. This life is an illusion, a dream, it isn’t something to be taken as seriously as we generally do. Gretel died, she didn’t take her own life, although these verses indicate a joyous acceptance of death; she lets it go, Gretel lets life go and opens her eyes from a grey dream to something more, she now knows the truths and mysteries that we yet do not:

Living is thus but a dream of a dream,

but awakeness is elsewhere.

So you let it go.

Greatly you let it go.

And we knew you as small.

From time to time, I love to indulge in thoughts of death. I sink into reveries of being nothing anymore, no future, no past, no chances, no regrets; rotting quietly like flowers in a vase while ivy is wrapping itself around my weak bones. It’s pleasant to imagine the end of all struggles and attachments… Fantasising about death makes me appreciate life more because I become aware of all the beautiful things that I can experience and feel only if I am alive, and when living becomes a matter of my choice and not a burden I am forced to carry, day to day life becomes not only more bearable but also tinged with a certain magic! And I stumbled upon something similar in a book: “… it is precisely in and through imaginations of death – be it in suicidal fantasy or (as in the case of Rilke’s “Requiem”) other means of forging direct contact with the other side – that soul reality distinguishes itself most sharply from mere corporeal existence: “Suicide fantasies provide freedom from the actual and usual view of things, enabling one to meet the realities of the soul.” (Daniel Joseph Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus – RILKE: A Soul History) So, reading this Requiem makes me more accepting of death, but also more joyous about life and its endless beauties while it’s still here. I am full of rapture when I think that this life is a but a dream! Oh what joy! To be living a dream till we awake one day in the real world.

Requiem

 

You know

how the almond trees bloom

and that lakes are blue.

Many things felt only by the woman

who has known first love,

you know. Nature whispered to you

in the South’s late-fading days

beauty so endless

as else only the happy lips

of happy people say, who, two by two,

have one word and one voice –

more gently you sensed all that,-

(o how the unending grim

touched your unending humility)

Your letters came from the South,

warm still with sun, but orphaned,-

at last you yourself followed after

your weary beseeching letters;

for you did not like being in the light,

every colour lay on you like guilt,

and you lived in impatience,

for you knew: This is not the whole.

Living is only a part … what of?

Living is only a tone … what in?

Living has sense only joined with many

circles of far-increasing space,-

Living is thus but a dream of a dream,

but awakeness is elsewhere.

So you let it go.

Greatly you let it go.

And we knew you as small.

(…)

See here,

This wreath is so heavy.

And they will lay it upon you,

This heavy wreath.

Can your coffin endure it?

If it breaks

Under the black weight,

Into the folds of your dress

Will creep

Ivy.

Far up will it twine,

All around you will it twine…

(….)

Even if storm and rage tomorrow,

That will not hurt the flowers much.

They will be brought to you. You have the right

Surely to have them, my child,

And even if tomorrow they are black and bad

And faded long ago.

Fear not for that. You will no longer

Distinguish what rises or falls;

Colors are closed, and tones are empty,

And you won’t even know any longer

Who brings you all the flowers.

Oh sleeper Alexandra / 2018, found here.

Edgar Allan Poe: Annabel Lee, Eulalie and Ideal Beloved

7 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day in 1849. Oh, it was a sad Sunday in Baltimore! The moss on the graveyard’s oldest tombstones sighed with lament and even the ravens cried! Poe is one of my favourite writers and these days I was intensely immersed in his poems and short-stories, particularly those which deal with his favourite topic: death of a beautiful young woman. I have an obsessive interest in Poe’s feminine ideal and two poems that I am sharing here today, “Annabel Lee”(published posthumously near the end 1849) and “Eulalie” (originally published in July 1845) feature a type of heroine which Poe loved. Poem “Eulalie” deals with the narrator’s past sadness and rediscovery of joy; both in love itself and in his object of love and that is a beautiful yellow-haired beloved whose eyes are brighter than the stars. Poe’s poems and short stories feature two very different types of female characters; first is the learned type, intellectually and sexually dominant, dark-haired, slightly exotic and mysterious woman such as Ligeia and Morella, who are in minority.

And then there’s the second type; Poe’s idealised maiden whose only purpose is to be beautiful, love the narrator and die… Poe’s ideal beloved is a beautiful tamed creature; young, often light haired with sparkling eyes and lily white skin, cheeks rosy from consumptive fever which will eventually bring her doom, passive, frail and vulnerable, romantically submissive girl who, just as in the poem “Annabel Lee”: “lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.” A very young girl is more easily shaped to be what the narrator desires, and greater is the chance of her being a perfect companion; she can be subsumed into another’s ego and has no need to tell her own tale. (*) The maiden’s love has the power to transform the narrator’s miserable, doomed life, as is the case with the blushing and smiling bride Eulalie, but her death can be of an equal if not greater importance. Such is the fate of the characters such as Annabel Lee, Morella, Eleanora and Madeline Usher. In death, their singular beauty is eternally preserved. Death fuels the narrator’s art and is a starting point to contemplation.

I will devote a moment today to Poe’s poetry and maybe even reread some of my favourite stories. I feel that it’s just nice to remember birthdays of your favourite artists and poets, it gives more meaning to my otherwise meaningless existence.

Alex Benetel, “Chronicles at sea” ft. Madeline Masarik

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,

   In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

   By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

   Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

   In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

   I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

   Coveted her and me.

 

And this was the reason that, long ago,

   In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

   My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her highborn kinsmen came

   And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre

   In this kingdom by the sea.

 

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

   Went envying her and me—

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

   In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

   Of those who were older than we—

   Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

   Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

   In her sepulchre there by the sea—

   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Stephen Mackey (b. 1966), Bride of the Lake

Eulalie

I dwelt alone

In a world of moan,

And my soul was a stagnant tide,

Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride—

Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

 

Ah, less, less bright

The stars of the night

Than the eyes of the radiant girl!

And never a flake

That the vapor can make

With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,

Can vie with the modest Eulalie’s most unregarded curl—

Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.

 

Now Doubt—now Pain

Come never again,

For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,

And all day long

Shines, bright and strong,

Astarté within the sky,

While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye—

While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.

Poe, The original manuscript, 1845

*”Poe’s Feminine Ideal”, from Cambridge Companion to Poe

Claude Monet – Poppies

9 Jun

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odour is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever.”

(The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L.F. Baum)

1873. Claude Monet - Poppies 2Claude Monet, Poppies, 1873

Claude Monet, a painter whose name is inseparable from Impressionism, painted landscapes, water lilies, poplars, ladies in garden, women with parasols, Rouen Cathedral, London Parliament, boats, leisure activities, coast of Normandy, and – poppies. He captured these exciting red meadow treasures in single brush strokes of magnificent red colour, so rich and decadent against the endless greenness of the field.

Nature and its changeability was something that really fascinated the Impressionists; their aim was to capture the change of light, the rain, the sunset, the wind and the dew – capture the moment in all its beauty and splendor. Although born in Paris, Claude Monet, like many other Impressionists, made frequent trips to French countryside, in search for inspiration. Such trips brought him, among other places, to Argenteuil which was, back then, a rural escape for many Parisians. There he painted the gleaming surface of the river Seine and those famous fields dotted with exuberant poppies and other wildflowers.

1875. Claude Monet - Poppy Field, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Poppy Field, Argenteuil, 1875

Claude even lived in Argenteuil for some time in the 1870s, and that’s when he painted the interesting painting you can see all the way up, titled simply ‘Poppies’. It is a very simple scene, a beautiful sunny moment captures on canvas. A scene of poppies is framed by a dash of trees and a few peaceful clouds on a bright blue sky. The painting is somewhat symmetrical; motif of a woman and a child is repeated, one time in the background, one time in the foreground, and we can see a diagonal line which separates two colour zones – a vivid red one and a more gentle one, mottled with blue-lilac flowers. As is typical for Impressionism, colours and lines are blurred, and the woman’s dress in the foreground almost seems to be blended in with the poppies and the grass. The figures are painted dimly, and the overall simplicity rules the scene, but the universal feeling that it projects is what attracts viewers the most; a vivid atmosphere of a summer’s day, a stroll in the meadow, sun shining bright, buzz in the air, the intoxicating redness of the poppies, no worries, no fears when one is surrounded by such beauties.

As you can see in the examples below, motif of poppies and meadows never failed to capture Claude Monet’s attention and he seemed to be enjoying his stays at the countryside. After spending time in Argenteuil, Monet moved to Vétheuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. In Vétheuil, Monet found peace of mind after the death of his first wife Camille by painting his garden and the nearby meadows.

1879. Poppy Field near Vétheuil - Claude MonetClaude Monet, Poppy Field near Vétheuil, 1879

1880. Claude Monet - View of VétheuilClaude Monet, View of Vétheuil, 1880

Poppy is a beautiful flower just for itself, but its symbolic meaning is something that’s fascinating to me even more. Poppies are often seen as symbol of sleep, peace, and death, and poppies on tombstones symbolise eternal sleep, how very romantic! Vision of death as an eternal sleep was typical for Romanticists, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley who became more and more obsessed with death as the years went on. Romanticists considered death to be a state in which all desires of a soul are fulfilled at last. Shelley’s verses from ‘Mont Blanc’:

'Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.'

Vision of poppy as a symbol of sleep was further emphasised in the novel Wonderful Wizard of Oz in which a magical poppy can make you sleep forever if you smell its odour for too long. Poppy is also used for the production of opium, and morphine and heroin. Opium was a well known wellspring of inspiration for the Romanticists such as Coleridge who wrote his ‘Kubla Khan’ one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream. Shelley also used opium to free his mind, so did Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire. It’s not a coincidence that ‘morphine’ borrowed its name from the Greek god of sleep Morpheus who slept in a cave full of poppy seeds. Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse seemed to have had similar ideas in mind when he painted one of his early works Sleep and his Half-Brother Death in 1874, in which he portrayed the mysterious connection between sleep, dreams and death.

Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.‘ (Edgar Allan Poe)

1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death - John William Waterhouse1874. Sleep and his Half-brother Death – J.W.Waterhouse

Poppies are also seen as symbol of beauty, magic, consolation, and fertility. In China, they represent the loyalty and faith between lovers. According to the Chinese legend, a beautiful and courageous woman named Lady Yee was married to a warrior Hsiang Yu and she followed him on many battles. During one long war when the defeat seemed imminent, Lady Yee tried to cheer him up and boost his spirits by dancing with his sword. She failed in her mission, and committed suicide. Beautiful red poppies grew on her grave in abundance. Petals of the poppy flower reflect her spirit as she danced in the wind.

Poppies in Sussex, photo found here.

poppy 2Photo found here.

1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd1967. Scene from Far from the Maddening Crowd

poppy 1Photo found here.

Poppy is one of my favourite flowers out of many reasons. Firstly, their vivid red colour makes them stand out amidst all the greenery. Secondly, dreams, opium and Morpheus are some things that fascinate me, especially their connection with Romanticism. Poppies always seem to remind me of solitude since they often grow on isolated place. My memory places them by the railway, lost and forgotten, beautiful and fragile, gently dancing on the wind, in an eternal state of waiting, full of secrets, whispers and mystery, like some sad and lost souls that came out of Kerouac’s novel.

Théophile Gautier – The Ghost of the Rose

4 Jun

A very dreamy, romantic and eerie poem by a French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier.

Stanislaw Wyspianki, Double portrait d’Eliza Pareńska, 1905

The Ghost of the Rose

Open your eyelids now closed

That brush on a maidens dream;

I am the ghost of the rose

That you wore at the ball last night.

You plucked me still silvered with pearls

Sprinkled like tears from the hose,

And throughout the glittering scene

Paraded all night was I seen.

 

O you who have caused my death

Unable to chase it away

Throughout the night, my ghost of a rose

Will come to dance by your bed.

But have no fear, I shall claim

No mass nor De Profundis;

This faint perfume is my soul

And from paradise do I come.

 

My destiny may serve for envy;

For no better death could one have

Than thus to have given ones life.

For, I have your breast as my tomb

And there on the headstone where I repose

A poet has left me a kiss

And written: “Here lies a rose

Of which, kings are inclined to be jealous”.

(translated by David Paley)

William James Grant – The Bridge of Sighs

28 Apr

Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

William James Grant, The Bridge of Sighs, mid 1850s, oil on panel, 5 inches in Diameter

If a woman succumbs to society’s condemnation and feels that she cannot live with herself and her shame any longer… then drowning in the Thames is the only option. This is exactly what is portrayed in Grant’s painting “The Bridge of Sighs”. Pale young woman was found drowned, washed on the shores of the Thames, just near the bridge but moments ago. And now the man who found her is holding her frail pale body in his arm and taking her out of the water. Colourful shawl and the white dress are heavy and wet, but not heavier then her heart must have been before she made this decision. Look how lifelessly her arm, head and hair are hanging. The sad heart beats no more. Here is what the same-named poem says of the moment:

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

The theme of a fallen woman was very popular in the Victorian era, especially in the 1850s and 1860s. All members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhod; Rossetti, Millais and Hunt explored the theme, each in his own way, and many other artists followed their example and painted a theme which included exposing the hypocrisy of the Victorian society. It was very easy to be a fallen woman in Victorian era: “Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession (of prostitution) as family finances dictated.’(*)

So this woman wasn’t necessarily a prostitute, she could have also been a working class girl whose lover abandoned her. Or, she could have been a shop worker whose destitute situation compelled her, maybe even once, to prostitution. Once or ten times, she is fallen nonetheless and tainted in the eyes of the respectable world. This painting is the most recent example of this theme that I stumbled upon, and it instantly appealed to me. It’s apparently very small, just little less than 13 cm in diameter. The round shaped canvas with closely cropped figures of the woman’s poignantly painted dead body, two men, and the sinister bridge in the background, along with the frame inscribed with a stanza from Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs” is just striking. All these artworks are poetic and empathetic views of a bleak theme, and that brings to my mind the kitchen sink drama films which I love so much. In such films, the protagonist is faced with a huge life dilemma. The theme was equally explored in Victorian era literature; we have Charles Dickens’s kind-hearted prostitutes and most importantly Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs”, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping of off a bridge. Here is the whole poem:

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!