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John Everett Millais (8 June 1829  13 August 1896)  The Eve of St. Agnes  Oil on canvas, 1862-1963  Royal Collection
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Title: The Eve of St. Agnes
Description:
 
John Everett Millais (8 June 1829 – 13 August 1896)
The Eve of St. Agnes
Oil on canvas, 1862-1963
Royal Collection

Inspired by Keat's poem of the same name.
 
In the twenty-first of January in what is customarily believed to be the year 304 A.D., a thirteen-year-old Christian girl, Agnes of Rome, was martyred when she refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape. She was tortured, and though several men offered themselves to her in marriage, either in lust or in pity ("Catholic Forum"), she still refused to surrender her viriginity, claiming that Christ was her only husband. She was either beheaded and burned or stabbed (sources vary), and buried beside the Via Nomentata in Rome. She became the patron saint of virgins, betrothed couples, and chastity in general, and iconographers almost always represent her with a lamb, which signifies her virginity. The eve of her feast day, January 20th, became in European folklore a day when girls could practice certain divinatory rituals before they went to bed in order to see their future husbands in their dreams. Fifteen hundred years after her death, St. Agnes' Eve would translate itself into one of the richest and most vivid literary and artistic themes in historys. 
 
Of all the works, artistic or literary, that use the subject of St. Agnes' Eve as its basis, John Keats's narrative poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" written in 1819 is undoubtedly the most famous.Within the realm of painting however, six well-known Victorian artists chose to depict scenes the poems, and five illustrated versions of Keats's poem have been published using the drawings of five different illustrators, who, again, lived in the Victorian era or the early twentieth century. Of the paintings, two were painted by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais) and one by a Pre-Raphaelite Associate (Arthur Hughes).
 
John Everett Millais was a close friend Hunt even before Hunt met Rossetti. As a painter, he was the most technically talented of the PRB and the most critically acclaimed. He did no less than three different works using the St. Agnes' Eve theme, whether taking his inspiration Tennyson's or Keats's poem. The first, a small pen and ink drawing created in 1854, derives the Tennyson version and depicts a nun looking out a window over snow-covered roofs of the convent. The nun is effectively the speaker in Tennyson's poem, waiting for her "Heavenly Bridegroom" (l. 31). In "Millais's "Mariana": Literary Painting, the Pre-Raphaelite Gothic, and the Iconology of the Marian Artist", Andrew Leng calls attention to the similarities between this drawing by Millais and his full sized painting Mariana done in 1851, focusing on the likenesses in subject matter (both show lone women standing before an open window) and iconography. Mariana, longing for her lover, Angelo, thoroughly sick of her embroidery, and trapped and miserable in her castle, looks out of her window and stretches sensually, emphasizing her body and its sexuality. Leng calls the nun in St. Agnes' Eve the "ascetic counterpart of Mariana" in that the nun longs for the absent Christ and says that the crucifix in front of her altar is "the nun's equivalent of Mariana's glass angel." Millais does not approve of her situation any more than he does Mariana's miserable one, as her virginity is a counterpart to the freezing landscape outside; Leng cites Herbert Sussman in saying that "'the twisted body of the crucified Christ above her personal altar is equated with the gnarled leafless tree in the garden.'" In biographical context, this reading of the drawing is quite reasonable. Millais drew the picture on the now infamous trip to Glenfinals with John Ruskin and Ruskin's wife Effie, during which Millais and Effie fell in love. In a letter to her mother, Effie writes that the nun's face bears a remarkable resemblance to the face of Millais himself. In this way, the nun's melancholy virginity represents Millais's own unhappiness in longing for his heavenly spouse.

His next rendition of the same poem 1857 for the Moxon Tennyson is even smaller than the first (4.5 x 3.3 inches) and is purely book illustration. His later The Eve of St. Agnes however, relies on Keats's poem and is much more sensual. The original study for the painting was done in 1849 and shows Madeline's clothes as they fall her body. Marcia Pointon remarks,

Represented thus, neither a naked model nor a clothed woman, the figure of Madeline is highly provocative. Clothing as a social practice defines the boundaries between nature and culture, and the act of divesting the clothing is an act of avowal in the physical, a declaration of the body. It is the sight of the empty dress, after all that entranced Porphyro in Keats's poem.

Millais compounds the eroticism with the addition of Madeline's thick, flowing hair and long neck (similar to D.G. Rossetti's eroticized Fair Lady), and the addition of moonlight streaming through the window. Furthermore, Madeline stares longingly not out the window but at the bed, expressing the wish for a more earthly union as opposed to a spiritual one like the nun wishes for as she stares out at the heavens. But conversely, another interpretation of the painting proposed in 1894 by Esther Wood claims that there are no references to Madeline's sexuality in the scene and that it in fact highlights her innocence:

There is about her an extraordinary spiritual loveliness, born of the utter artlessness and sincerity of her pose and the girlish innocence of her look, as if the absolute naturalness of the situation were its own protection all thought of ill. Everything around her speaks of her simple holiness and purity, and seals, as it were, the pledge of the answering purity of Porphyro's love.

This interpretation of the picture is probably a function of the time in which Wood created it. Keats undeniably meant that Madeline and Porphyro have a sexual union in the poem. We know this not only his unpublished second draft of the poem, but also Richard Woodhouse's letter to John Taylor (both were friends of Keats, Woodhouse his publisher) in which he writes about the revisions made to the poem to make it less explicit. This letter was published in 1925 in Amy Lowell's biography, and for Wood, writing before the twentieth century, it would easier to deny erotic implications in either Keats's or Hunt's works. Since 1925 though, critics have had to factor sexuality into their assessment of the poem. Given this and the previously mentioned aspects of the painting that indicate an erotic meaning, it would be fairly simple to effectively undermine Esther Wood's argument.

In terms of its technical aspects, the painting is typical of Millais's later style after he married Effie; now that he had a family to support, he wrote that "he could no longer afford to spend a day painting an area 'no larger than a five shilling piece'", referring to the obsessive detail that characterized the early Pre-Raphaelite works. His looser style is evident in this painting in that Madeline is the only carefully painted object; the walls and the decoration on them in the background, the bed in the foreground, are all somewhat blurred.
 
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