Dante Gabriel Rossetti, St. Cecilia (1856-1857)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, St. Cecilia (1856-1857)


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

Scholarly Commentary


This drawing is perhaps the most celebrated in the series of drawings Dante Gabriel Rossetti made to illustrate texts from Lord Alfred Tennyson's poetry. The target in this case is "The Palace of Art” (lines 97-100). The difficulty arises because of the erotic intensity of the picture, which (given the source text) appears to represent a (male) angel embracing the ecstatic St. Cecilia. Tennyson's verse is cool to a degree, however. In addition, various commentators have struggled to identify the object on the back of the angel. The traditional interpretation is that this is an angel's wing, but perhaps badly drawn. George Somes Layard surveyed the early commentators and decided that the man isn't an angel, but a flesh and blood “man masquerading as an angel": "some lover, enamoured of the lovely saint, has seen, in her belief of an ever-present guardian angel, opportunity to seek her presence” (Layard 58).

The soldier in the foreground munching an apple is a clear figural representation of sensuality represented in a negative form, inserted to make a contrast with the central pair of figures. Layard's response to the sensuality of the drawing is surely right, but the object on the man's back may not be an angel's wing (and so the man would be neither angel nor masquerading man); the object may be a shield, and hence the man a knight errant. In any case, the figure of the man distinctly recalls the posture and accoutrements (elaborate cloak and shield) of Sir Galahad in the drawing Rossetti was making at this time—a drawing that never found its way into the set of drawings that were published with Tennyson's poems in the 1857 Moxon edition.

Rather than what Layard calls the drawing,—“a travesty of the story of St. Cecily, ”—it could represent Rossetti “allegorizing on his own hook," and re-interpreting Tennyson's ascetic verse so that the idea of a high spiritual love would be given a fleshly, human inflection. See the commentary for The Maids of Elfen-Mere and Fredeman, Correspondence 1855. 4).

It may be that Rossetti is consciously recalling the entire story of St. Cecilia as it is told in Jacobus de Varagine's collection of saints' lives, The Golden Legend: the drawing would represent Cecilia, the patron saint of church music, in an ecstatic state of vision, and the man as Cecilia's husband Valerian, here imagined as appearing to her after his martyr's death (and before Cecilia herself would suffer martyrdom). According to the legend, Cecilia had taken a vow of chastity, and when Valerian was betrothed to her, he agreed to let her keep her vow. He subsequently converted to Christianity. 

Production History

Dante Gabriel Rossetti created this design from late 1856 to early 1857 for Edward Moxon's illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems (1857). The engraving made from it by George Dalziel greatly displeased Rossetti (see Fredeman 1856. 59 and the elaborate instructions to Dalziel that Rossetti penciled on the progress proof for the illustration). Rossetti took out his rancor in an epigram. 

The price that Dalziel paid to Rossetti for the drawings is uncertain since various accounts have been given. Most likely is that he was paid £12 for each drawing, though some estimates go as high as £30 (see Fredeman 1856n62).


William Michael Rossetti reported his impression that “[Tennyson] really liked Rossetti's designs when he saw them . . . but the illustration of St. Cecilia puzzled him not a little, and he had to give up the problem of what it had to do with his verses” (1:189-90). Tennyson's puzzlement is partly explained by the positioning of the image in the Moxon volume; it is placed at the head of the poem instead of alongside its reference text. The decision to place it is related to Rossetti's other drawing for “The Palace of Art,” the design called King Arthur and the Weeping Queens.


Virginia Surtees notes William Michael Rossetti’s comment "that Miss Siddal had made a design for the same subject which preceded [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti's, and that the ‘detail of invention’ (indicating the death of the Saint) was hers” (1: 48). The location of this design by Elizabeth Siddal is not known.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti's design presents his distinctive imagining of St. Cecilia from Alfred Tennyson's The Palace of Art. The influence of Tennyson's source in Varagine (see above) is highly probable:

Or in a clear-wall'd city on the sea

Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair

Wound with white roses, slept St. Cecily;

An angel look'd at her.

Physical Description

Medium: Pen and brown ink.

Dimensions: 3 7/8 x 3 1/4 in.

Production Description

Production Date: 1856-1857.

Exhibition History: Tate 1911 (no.5); Tate 1923 (no.137); R.A., British Art, 1934 (no.1289); Bucharest, Exhibition of British Graphic Art 1935 (no.297); Vienna 1936; Prague 1936; Birmingham 1947 (no.265).


Current Location: Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Catalog Number: 235'04.

Archival History: Rossetti Sale (lot 85 a); Fairfax Murray; Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Works Cited

Fredeman, William E., ed. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. D. S. Brewer, 2002. 9 vols.

Layard, George Somes. Tennyson and his Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators: A Book about a Book. E. Stock, 1894.

Life, Allan R. “The Art of Not Going Halfway: Rossetti's Illustration for 'The Maids of Elfen–Mere.'"Victorian Poetry 20 (1982): 65–87.

McGann, Jerome. "St. Cecilia (Corrected Proof)." Rossetti Archive,

Rossetti, William Michael. His Family Letters. Vol 1. Ellis and Elvey, 1895.

Surtees, Virginia. The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné. Vol 1. Oxford UP, 1971.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Poems: 1809-1892. Edward Moxon, 1857.

Varagine, Jacovus de. The Golden Legend. Trans. by William Caston. J.M. Dent, 1900. 

How to Cite this Web Page (MLA format)

McGann, Jerome. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, St. Cecilia (1856-1857).” Rossetti Archive Galleries. The COVE: The Central Online Victorian Educator, covecollective.org. [Here, add your last date of access to The COVE].


© Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Associated Place(s)


  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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