Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850)
DGR, Ecce Ancilla Domini!


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A variant of this description was originally published at The Rossetti Archive at this location

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (oil on canvas) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a companion piece to The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, occupies a key place among the large number of works DGR conceived and executed early in his career on the subject of the Virgin. Many of these works, like this one, deliberately cultivate effects of pastiche in relation to Italian primitive art. As his work developed, the figure of the Virgin was replaced by a rich array of more secular female figures. All these women function in some kind of magical way for DGR, whether as benevolent Beatrices and blessed damozels, or as more threatening presences: e.g., Lilith, Monna Vanna, Astarte Syriaca. Christina Rossetti (his sister) was the model for the Virgin Mary. 

The idea for this unusual treatment of the Virgin may have come from DGR's reading in Anna Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art where she refers to "a beautiful miniature" in the Bibliotheque Nationale: "The Virgin seated on the side of her bed sinks back alarmed, almost fainting; the angel in a robe of crimson, with a white tunic, stands before her, half turning away, and grasping his sceptre in his hand" (1.125).

Even more clearly than its companion work The Girlhood of Mary Virgin , this painting defines the difference between the early Pre-Raphaelite style of DGR and that of his contemporaries, especially John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. All the Pre-Raphaelites incline to the "primitive" in their preference for primary colors and color purity. The close rendering of minute detail, which Hunt especially promoted, was less important to DGR, who used close detail in more selective ways. Most important, however, is DGR's impulse to recapture certain non-illusionistic symbolic techniques of dugento and trecento primitive art. His notorious disconnect with rules of perspective has been poorly understood by later critics and art historians, who fail to see that his impatience with systematic illusionism is a function of his attachment to other techniques of pictorial spatialization. There is a strong element of pastiche in all of DGR's work that is especially apparent in his earlier pictures and writings.

If looked at from the perspective of Cimabue or even Giotto, the sight lines of Ecce Ancilla Domini! present no difficulty. On the other hand, if studied through the illusionistic conventions of Albertian perspective, the painting will appear hopelessly confused, and will produce a comment like Waugh's, that DGR "knew nothing of perspective" (22). This charge, levelled at DGR from the beginning, fails to appreciate his determination to recover certain primitive ways of apprehending and representing space. In this painting, for instance, as in so many primitive pictures, recessive space and volume are constructed in separate areas of the work but these distinct parts are not forced to cohere into a single, systematically organized spatial illusion. The result is that we are drawn into the painting at different angles. The different spatial moments that focus our attention shift and change, and when these shifts occur our sense of the general organization of the picture also shifts.

A key point of focus is the lily held by the angel. The stem defines the strongest diagonal in the picture, and the stemmed flower is carefully located at the picture's golden mean. Because of the peculiar arrangement of the planes and sight-lines, however, DGR constructs an arresting ambiguity at this crucial location: in one view the stem is pointing toward the womb of the seated Virgin, but in another it lies athwart her, with the lower part of the stem set forward of the upper. That central ambiguity indexes all the other estranged sightlines and localized compositional areas. The stand holding the embroidered lily, like the angel's lily, functions in two perspectives simultaneously: one along the lily's disharmonic diagonal, the other along the sightlines defined by the floor. The window's recess draws both window-aperture and back wall out of perspective with the floor lines and the bed, but with a clear symbolic intent: to set the outer blue "sky" along the lily's diagonal, thus angling that sky toward the Virgin; and (in a very different spatial arrangement) to put angel and Virgin in parallel planes with parallel blue backgrounds.

The dominance of white and white shadings in virtually all the planes further erodes the sense of spatial recession. There is clear volume in the picture, but as the angel's lily so dramatically shows, the volume is ambiguous and finally abstract, a nonrealistic space for arranging various kinds of symbolic relations. DGR was quite aware that James Abbott McNeill Whistler's later, famous "white paintings" took their inspiration from this picture's formal experiment with the color white.

The picture is more than anything else DGR's representation of certain technical qualities of dugento and trecento painting that he most admired. Those qualities signify painting's obligation to display nonrationalized apprehension. His later, much more decorative work, so different from this in so many ways, as Ruskin and Hunt lamented, does not depart very far from the basic committments evident in this painting.

Like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, this picture is therefore another programmatic work. In point of expressive force, however, it goes well beyond DGR's first oil painting, which seems formal and brainy beside Ecce Ancilla Domini!. DGR's return to the Italian "primitives" was an effort to recover a kind of magical artistic practice which he saw in their work. Two things in Ecce Ancilla Domini! lift the painting past its strictly conceptual goals. First, we get a distinct sense of the catastrophic effect of a divine intervention in nature in the contrast between the hieratic figure of the angel and the contorted body of the Virgin with her brooding and haunted eyes. Second, the painting's strange series of white variations seems oddly obsessional, suggesting the presence of inexplicable yet plainly purposive agency.

Production History

DGR's initial sketch for the picture was begun on 25 November 1849. By 8 December, he had begun the painting itself and he worked steadily at it until the opening of the Portland Gallery Exhibition in late spring 1850. As the picture didn't sell, he reworked parts of it in December 1859 and made final changes in January 1853 after it had been purchased by Fraces MacCraken. It was at this time that DGR renamed the picture The Annunciation, "to guard against the imputation of 'popery,'" as William Michael Rossetti wrote in his diary.


The usual paraphernalia of the Annunciation are present, several of the accessories having been brought over directly from this work's companion piece, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Those (as it were) intramural connections underscore the programmatic character of DGR's painting.

As with DGR's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, this work's standard Christian iconography is handled in a pastiche manner. What this means is that both paintings represent an act of pictorial rather than religious devotion. The subject of DGR's picture is art rather than religion, but an art that is invested with spiritual values and commitments.

Placing the Virgin in her bed is an original conception, as John Ruskin was the first to point out. DGR seems to have lifted the idea from his reading in Anna Jameson (I.125).

The idea of a virginal conception is iconographically handled in the phallic lily which points at Mary's womb. The tree outside the window is oddly presented without any associated landscape. DGR may have wanted to isolate it in this way in order to emphasize its purely iconographic character (i.e., as an allusion to the tree in the Garden of Eden by which man's fall came about, the tree of Jesus's crucifixion by which redemption came, and perhaps the tree of Jesse, the redeemer's genealogical line.


This picture has a close relation, in both style and theme, to the first oil painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, executed just before this one. Indeed, the cloth that Mary is represented as embroidering in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin appears in this painting beside the Virgin's bed, as does the "angel-watered lily" (here borne by the angel Gabriel) and the dove-image of the Holy Spirit. DGR intended to do another painting, to be called Death of the Virgin, to accompany this work but it was never begun.

The fullest discussion of pictorial influences is Grieve's (21-24); he draws particular attention to DGR's admiration for Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. Alicia Craig Faxon notes the possible influence of the outer panels of Jan van Eyck's altarpiece at Ghent , which DGR had seen and greatly admired, and she also cites plate 7 of the British Library's Canticum canticorum (Faxon55). The 1850 reviewer for the Observer thought the picture was done in the manner of Pietro Perugino and the review for the Times was reminded of plates in medieval missals. The Virgin's pose distinctly recalls Simone Martini's famous Annunciation altarpiece done for the Siena Cathedral (now in the Uffizi Gallery). Other possible influences would be Sandro Botticelli's famous Uffizi Annunciation and Roger Van der Weyden's Annunciation (in the Louvre).


The picture has its source in the gospel of Luke I: 26-35, especially verses 28-29.

The painting relates directly to the sestet of DGR's sonnet Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture) I., which DGR wrote to accompany the painting that pairs with this one, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

DGR's striking representation of the Virgin probably owes as much to Giorgio Vasari's report of Giotto's Annunciation in his Life of that artist as it does to paintings and images that DGR saw: "The Virgin seems almost ready to take flight, so great is her fear and astonishment as she receives the salutation of Gabriel."

The famous "whiteness" of this painting may well owe more to Dante than to any painting; it recalls the relief images of the Annunciation that Dante sees in Canto X of the Purgatorio, which are carved in white marble.

Building upon this reading, in which Ecce Ancilla Domini! self-consiously invokes a counter-tradition of iconography through its use of pastiche, it should also be noted that DGR's vision of the Annunciation shares many qualities in common with Walter Pater's haunting description of Botticelli's "peevish madonnas," madonnas which "conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty." Pater, writing in one of the more antinomian chapters of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, finds that Botticelli's saintly figures are "saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink." And it is precisely in this Paterian wistfulness—in this apparent contemplation of a great refusal—that DGR's Virgin exhibits her kinship with Botticelli's distinctive madonnas, who, according to Pater, "shrink from the pressure of the divine child, and plead in unmistakeable undertones for a warmer, lower humanity."

Pater, of course, locates a similar fusion of realist and visionary tendencies at the center of the art of both DGR and of Botticelli, and it is to this strangely fused status that the distinctive formal ambiguities of Ecce Ancilla Domini! may be attributed. DGR, according to Pater, finds the means to materialize the spiritual and to spiritualize the material, so that what once was spirit achieves a concrete definition and what once was corporeal is intensely clarified. Rossetti's painting of the Annunciation moment bears witness to this sort of cataclysmic exchange between spiritual and material planes. Ecce Ancilla Domini! records the trauma of such an event in its abiding sense of the effect of a divine intervention in nature--which is nothing less than catastrophic—in its marked contrast between the hieratic figure of the angel and the contorted body of the Virgin; in the horrible pitching angle of the room and the bed, from which, it seems, the girl must soon slide towards the chill of that divine contact from which she so visibly shrinks; and in its strange, seemingly obsessional series of white variations, which suggest the presence of inexplicable yet plainly purposive agency.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Works Cited

Faxon, Alicia Craig. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Abbeville Press, 1989.

Jameson, Anna. Sacred and Legendary Art. Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1857.

Rossetti, William Michael, ed. Preraphaelite Diaries and Letters. Hurst and Blackett Limited, 1900.

Waugh, Evelyn. Rossetti: His Life and Works. Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1975.

How to Cite this Web Page (MLA format)

McGann, Jerome. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850)." Omnibus Edition of "In an Artist's Studio. Eds. Pamela Buck, Dino Franco Felluga, Nicole Fluhr, Dominique Gracia, Jerome McGann, Melissa Merte, and Herbert F. Tucker. The COVE: The Central Online Victorian Educator, covecollective.org. [Here, add your last date of access to The COVE].

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Associated Place(s)


  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Image Date: 

circa. 1853