Is It Beautiful, or “Mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting”?

Is It Beautiful, or “Mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting”? June 30, 2015


This is “Christ in the House of His Parents,” painted by John Everett Millais in 1849 and one of the landmarks of the -Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement. It’s a masterpiece of symbolic naturalism. Everything in it has meaning. At the  center of the action is the child Jesus. He’s cut his hand on a nail, and some of the blood has dropped to his foot, prefiguring the wounds of the crucifixion.

The Blessed Mother holds out a cheek for him to kiss in comfort. Joseph examines the wound with the nonchalance of a worker who has seen many such injuries, but St. Anne looks more concerned and reaches for the pliers to yank the offending nail. Off to the left is a worker, observing Jesus: a witness like many others in the gospel. The boy to the right suggests John the Baptist, nervously bringing water to wash the wound as he will use water to baptize Christ.

In the background we see sheep watching through the door: the flock of Christians. On the ladder rests a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and the ladder itself may symbolize either Jacob’s ladder or a ladder used in the crucifixion. The triangle on the wall is the Trinity, the wood of the cross litters the workshop, branches suggest the palms of Palm Sunday.

The only bizarre part of the composition are the red-headed figures of Mary and Jesus. Why make them red-headed? Another gesture at the blood of the passion? Or is it just a visual cue to set mother and child apart? Only Mary and Jesus share blood and thus genetic traits. The blood of Christ was the blood of Mary.

The painting was hugely controversial when it was first shown. Much as I admire Charles Dickens, his eruption of outrage is absurd:

…you come, in this place, to the contemplation of a Holy Family. You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.

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 ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. 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.

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