Pre-Raphaelites and The Eve of St. Agnes

Have you heard of the Eve of St. Agnes? I hadn’t before I read the Keats poem. It’s filled with exquisite detail. So no wonder it’s inspired so many artists. I also didn’t know it helped spur the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Here’s a brief history of St. Agnes. She’s a saint in the Catholic tradition since at least 300 CE. The young Roman girl became a martyr when she refused to honor pagan gods and a bunch of nasty sexual advances. In retaliation those men brutally murdered her. She was only 13. (The stories vary on how but they’re a bit too upsetting for me to recount.)

On a happier note, the Pope blesses cute little lambs in Rome each year on the Feast of St. Agnes, Jan. 21.

lamb
Credit: Paul Badde/CNA.

St. Agnes became the patron saint for young girls. In folk custom on the eve of St. Agnes if a girl performed these certain rituals it was said she could see her future husband in her dreams:

  1. Don’t eat dinner
  2. Get naked
  3. Lay on your back and put your hands under your pillow
Eve of St Agnes (Pensive Whilst She Dreams), Frederick George Swaish, 1920
Eve of St Agnes (Pensive Whilst She Dreams), Frederick George Swaish, 1920

Also, you’re supposed to look up to the sky and not behind yourself – but I feel like that’s a given in that position.

Romantic poet John Keats took this tradition, ran with it, amped up the sensual details, and later helped give birth to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He published The Eve of St. Agnes in 1820.

I won’t quote too much of it, but here’s his verse on the steps needed for the tradition.

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

– The Eve of St. Agnes, VI

Madeline, the main character in the poem, performs these rituals. She half-awakes to find her beloved in her bed. She saw him in her dream so she assumes she’s still dreaming. Meanwhile, “he arose, / Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star.”

-fans self-

He plays the lute at her. They have sex. When she wakes up she realizes it all happened in real life. Happily, though (I guess? He seems sketch), the lovers escape to the moors.

The poem inspired the artist William Holman Hunt. The couple’s flight from the castle must have transfixed him.

They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide; —
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones; —
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.

– The Eve of St. Agnes, XI

Sumptuous medieval detail became a hallmark for the Pre-Raphaelites. And Keats’s luxurious details in the poem, down to the bolts, show up in Hunt’s painting.

The flight of Madeline and Porphyro, William Holman Hunt, 1848
The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro, William Holman Hunt, 1848

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848. Dante Gabriel Rossetti happened to be slumming around the show. Apparently, when he saw Hunt’s work he ran around proclaiming that The Eve of St. Agnes was the best in the collection. (Victorian Kanye, anyone?) The two became fast friends.

Hunt made 70 pounds off the painting. This money allowed Hunt and Rossetti to move in together in Fitzrovia. With John Everett Millais the trio founded the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The Eve of Saint Agnes, John Everett Millais, 1863
The Eve of Saint Agnes, John Everett Millais, 1863

Of course, that’s a simplification of the start of the movement, but how Keats posthumously helped instigate it is nonetheless interesting.

Here are some more paintings inspired by Keats lush writing.

Madeline after Prayer, Daniel Maclise, 1868
Madeline after Prayer, Daniel Maclise, 1868
The Eve of St Agnes, Arthur Hughes, 1856
The Eve of St Agnes, Arthur Hughes, 1856
St. Agnes, Arthur Hughes
The Eve of St. Agnes, Arthur Hughes
Illustration to John Keat's poem, The eve of St. Agnes, Harry Clarke
Illustration to John Keat’s poem, The Eve of St. Agnes, Harry Clarke

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6 thoughts on “Pre-Raphaelites and The Eve of St. Agnes”

  1. When I was a teenager I used to love the Pre-Raphaelites (especially their paintings of nature) but looking at these paintings, I am wondering why I liked them now! They all seem rather staged. How one’s taste changes as you mature!

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  2. Well written, in depth, and unknown (to most everyone). This makes for great discussion and had me enthralled for the entire article. I love anything that leads to Pre-Raphaelite art. I believe the only picture in this group that I have seen before is the lamb and I have seen a lot of Pre-Raphaelites ;-). Thanks

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  3. I still enjoy looking at these lush, opulent paintings in a museum. That’s where they belong, I think they would become a bit cloying after a few viewings. But it does make me want to pull out an old book of Keats and read the poem.

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