The Impact of Mythology and Literature on Pre-Raphaelite Imagery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, established in 1848, marked a profound departure from the conventional artistic norms of the Victorian era.

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Literary Foundations of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement
  3. Mythological Themes Across Different Artists
  4. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Case Study
  5. Reflecting the Contemporary Through Myth
  6. Conclusion
  7. Questions and Answers



Founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, the movement was characterized by a fervent desire to eschew the formulaic approach taught by the Royal Academy Schools and to return to a style of art that predates the High Renaissance—hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.” A defining feature of their revolutionary approach was the infusion of rich, complex mythological and literary themes into their artworks. This article explores how mythology and literature significantly impacted the imagery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, briefly touching upon the contributions of key figures such as Rossetti, Millais, Evelyn De Morgan, and John Collier.


Literary Foundations of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from its inception, sought to redefine art through a radical return to the detailed, vibrant, and complex styles that characterized art before Raphael and the High Renaissance. At the core of this redefinition was an ardent integration of art with rich literary sources and mythologies. This choice was not merely aesthetic but foundational, serving as a conduit for expressing the Brotherhood’s revolutionary artistic and social ideologies.

The literary aspirations of the Brotherhood were heavily influenced by the works of John Ruskin, particularly his advocacy for a truthful, nature-centered art as outlined in “Modern Painters”. Ruskin’s critique of the Royal Academy’s promotion of a formulaic approach to art, which emphasized classical ideals of beauty over natural observation and emotional depth, resonated deeply with the Brotherhood. They found in literature and mythology not only inspiration but also a framework through which they could explore and express complex moral and philosophical questions.

One of the Brotherhood’s most distinctive features was their use of medieval and biblical stories, which they believed embodied purer, more expressive narrative forms that had been lost to the modern world. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais spearheaded this movement by initially focusing on subjects from the Bible, early Italian literature, and medieval history. These themes were particularly suited to the Brotherhood’s ideals because they encapsulated an era before the influence of the High Renaissance, which they felt was a period of stylistic decline.

The choice of medieval literature as a source of inspiration was also reflective of a broader 19th-century revival of interest in medieval art and culture, known as the Gothic Revival. This revival was partly a reaction against the Industrial Revolution’s emphasis on mechanization and standardization, promoting instead a return to craftsmanship and individual artistic expression. For the Pre-Raphaelites, medieval literature and its themes provided rich narrative content that allowed them to engage deeply with issues of morality, justice, and human emotion.

Works such as Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” offered narratives that the Pre-Raphaelites adapted to critique their own society. In paintings like Millais’s “The Knight Errant”, the chivalric themes and moral integrity of the knight are depicted with an intensity and realism that challenge the viewer to reflect on contemporary social values. Similarly, Rossetti’s fascination with Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and “Vita Nuova” inspired him to create works that intertwined romantic, spiritual, and tragic themes, exploring complex human emotions and the idea of redemptive love.

Moreover, the inclusion of these literary themes allowed the Brotherhood to assert their intellectualism and cultural sophistication. By engaging with well-known literary works, they could communicate with an educated audience who would recognize and appreciate the layered references within the paintings. This engagement was not just intellectual but also emotional, as the artworks were designed to evoke a deep empathetic response through their depiction of poignant, often tragic literary scenes.

In this way, the literary foundations of the Pre-Raphaelite movement were integral not only to its artistic objectives but also to its broader cultural and social critique. The Brotherhood’s artworks, infused with literary and mythological themes, served as a canvas for expressing their ideals about art, society, and the nature of beauty. They provided a visual language that was both richly decorative and profoundly meaningful, challenging the conventions of their time and leaving a lasting legacy on the visual arts.


Mythological Themes Across Different Artists

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s engagement with mythology and literature was not just a thematic choice but a foundational element that infused the artworks of its various members with depth and complexity. Each artist within the movement brought their own unique interpretation to these themes, creating a diverse yet cohesive body of work that explored the rich narratives of ancient and medieval myths.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was profoundly influenced by the allure of Dante Alighieri’s literary creations and medieval Italian tales. His painting, “Proserpine”, is a prime example of this influence. It depicts the Roman goddess Proserpine, who is doomed to spend half of each year in the underworld, resulting in the earth’s seasonal cycle. This artwork, currently housed at the Tate Britain in London, symbolizes the eternal cycle of life and death, a theme Rossetti revisited through various mythological and literary lenses. The artwork is imbued with symbolic elements, such as the pomegranate Proserpine holds, representing captivity and the return of spring.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

John Everett Millais, another founding member, often incorporated Shakespearean and Arthurian legends into his works. His painting “Ophelia”, displayed at the Tate Britain, London, is perhaps one of the most poignant illustrations of this. The work is based on the tragic character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and captures Ophelia’s descent into madness and her eventual death by drowning. The meticulous attention to botanical details in the painting reflects the Pre-Raphaelite commitment to realism and adds another layer of meaning, as each plant depicted is a symbol associated with Ophelia’s sorrow and madness.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Evelyn De Morgan, influenced by the earlier works of the Brotherhood, delved into classical mythology to critique and examine the roles of women in society. One of her notable works, “Cassandra”, portrays the Trojan prophetess who was cursed to utter true prophecies that were never believed. This painting, which is part of the De Morgan Collection, uses the myth of Cassandra as a metaphor for the struggles of women to be heard and respected in Victorian society. De Morgan’s work often featured strong, mystical female figures, challenging the typical depiction of women as passive or tragic figures.

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan
Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan. Buy a reproduction

John Collier, although not a member of the Brotherhood, was deeply influenced by its ideals and thematic focus. His painting “Priestess of Delphi” is a striking representation of the mythical oracle. This work, housed at the Art Gallery of South Australia, showcases Collier’s fascination with powerful female figures and his ability to blend historical accuracy with dramatic intensity. The Priestess is depicted in a moment of divine inspiration, connecting the spiritual and the earthly, a testament to the enduring fascination with mythological figures as conduits of deeper truths.

Priestess of Delphi by John Collier
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier

These artists, through their diverse yet thematically connected works, demonstrate the breadth and depth with which mythology and literature were woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Each painting not only tells a story but also serves as a reflection of the artist’s personal beliefs, societal commentary, and a broader quest for a deeper understanding of human emotion and the natural world.

By exploring these artworks, one gains insight into how mythological themes were not merely decorative but were crucial in articulating complex social and personal narratives. These artists used familiar stories to communicate new ideas, critique their society, and explore the spectrum of human experience, thus ensuring that their works remained both timeless and profoundly resonant.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Case Study

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the core founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, exemplifies the profound integration of literary and mythological themes in art. His works often transcended mere visual representation, becoming complex narratives that delved into themes of love, death, and redemption, heavily influenced by his personal fascination with literature and medieval culture.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti by William Hunt
Dante Gabriel Rossetti by William Hunt

Rossetti’s Artistic Philosophy and Literary Influences

Rossetti’s artistic output is notably marked by his relentless pursuit of combining poetic symbolism with visual aesthetics. His passion for the works of Dante Alighieri deeply influenced his art, driving him to explore themes of unattainable love and spiritual quest, which are recurrent in Dante’s writings. Rossetti’s translations of Dante’s works, including “The New Life” (Vita Nuova), not only illustrate his literary scholarship but also his commitment to infusing his paintings with a narrative depth and emotional resonance that were largely unprecedented at the time.

Beata Beatrix: A Synthesis of Personal Grief and Literary Symbolism

One of Rossetti’s most renowned paintings, “Beata Beatrix”, serves as a poignant case study of his method. This painting, which is currently housed in the Tate Britain, depicts Beatrice Portinari at the moment of her spiritual transcendence, inspired by Dante’s “Vita Nuova”. The work is heavily autobiographical, reflecting Rossetti’s own mourning for his deceased wife, Elizabeth Siddal, who is portrayed as Beatrice. The presence of a sundial and a dove carrying a poppy in the painting symbolize time, death, and opiate-induced sleep, respectively, blending personal symbolism with broader literary references.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Proserpine: Merging Mythological Narrative with Victorian Symbolism

Another significant work, “Proserpine”, showcases Rossetti’s use of Roman mythology to explore themes of captivity and return. The painting portrays the goddess Proserpine during her captivity in the underworld, holding a pomegranate, the fruit of the dead. This work, also held at the Tate Britain, is rich with symbolism reflecting the Victorian fascination with myth and its relevance to contemporary themes of freedom and entrapment.


Through his deeply interwoven themes of literature and visual art, Rossetti not only contributed significantly to the Pre-Raphaelite movement but also influenced generations of artists who sought to transcend the traditional boundaries of art and narrative. His works remain a testament to the power of integrating personal and literary narratives into visual media, demonstrating how art can convey complex human emotions and philosophical questions.


Reflecting the Contemporary Through Myth

The Pre-Raphaelites, while deeply rooted in the exploration of medieval and classical themes, did not merely replicate these ancient stories. Instead, they used mythological and literary motifs as a lens through which to examine and critique their own contemporary society. The nuanced portrayal of these timeless stories allowed the artists to comment on the moral, social, and even political issues of Victorian England.

Evelyn De Morgan is a prime example of an artist who adeptly used mythological themes to reflect on the role and perception of women during her time. In her painting, “Cassandra”, De Morgan explores the plight of the Trojan prophetess who, despite her divine gift of prophecy, is cursed to be disbelieved by those around her. This choice of subject can be interpreted as a metaphor for the Victorian woman, often unheard and underestimated, her insights and potentials overlooked due to societal prejudices.

Similarly, John Collier’s portrayal of classical figures like “Priestess of Delphi” delves into themes of spiritual and intellectual authority—a realm traditionally dominated by men, with the priestess serving as a powerful counter-image. By portraying these mythological women as complex, authoritative figures, Collier and his contemporaries were not just recounting old tales but using them to question and challenge the status quo.

These artists’ works demonstrate how the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers used the familiar vessels of myth and legend to offer fresh critiques of their contemporary world, making their paintings resonate with audiences past and present. This strategic use of mythology not only enriched their art with deeper layers of meaning but also engaged viewers in a dialogue about pressing social issues, thereby broadening the impact of their artistic expression.



The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s integration of literature and mythology into their art was not just a stylistic choice but a profound commentary on the human condition, blending past with present, and art with narrative. This fusion has left a lasting legacy on the art world, demonstrating the power of visual storytelling and the enduring appeal of narrative art. The impact of mythology and literature on Pre-Raphaelite imagery continues to inspire contemporary artists and captivates audiences around the globe, reminding us of the timeless nature of great stories and the profound ways they can be expressed.


Questions and Answers

The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood belong to which artistic movement?
The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood belong to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which emerged in 1848 in England. This movement was characterized by a rejection of the conventional artistic practices promoted by the Royal Academy of Arts, instead embracing a return to abundant detail, vibrant colors, and complex compositions that drew inspiration from art produced before the time of Raphael.

What is widely considered the most famous Pre-Raphaelite work of art?
One of the most famous works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement is John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia.” Painted in 1851-1852, it depicts the tragic character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet floating in a stream before she drowns. This painting is renowned for its intricate detail and vibrant realism, particularly in the depiction of the natural environment surrounding Ophelia.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters in what country?
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters, poets, and critics that originated in England. Founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the group aimed to reform English art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo.

How did the Pre-Raphaelites view nature in their artwork?
The Pre-Raphaelites placed a high value on the accurate and detailed depiction of nature. They believed that nature was directly connected to God and thus held deep spiritual and moral significance. Their approach involved painting outdoors (plein air) and closely observing the natural world to capture its beauty and detail with an almost scientific precision.

Who were some of the major literary figures that influenced the themes of Pre-Raphaelite paintings?
Major literary influences on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included medieval and Renaissance poets such as Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as contemporary Victorian writers like Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Keats. Their works often drew from these literary sources to enhance the narrative depth of their paintings, embedding rich symbolic and emotional layers into their art.