Rossetti’s “Astarte Syriaca”

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Astarte Syriaca (1877) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

While I was visiting the Manchester City Art Gallery Last Saturday to see the “We Face Forward” exhibition of West African art, I popped into the Victorian Art galleries to have another look at some favourite paintings. I’m not particularly fond of most Victorian art, but do like the Pre-Raphaelites and Manchester has quite a few paintings by Pre-Raphaelites, including this one, of Astarte, the ancient Syrian goddess of love, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,

Beside the painting, there’s the text of a poem that Rossetti wrote about his subject.

Mystery, lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the sphere’s dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,-
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

Many pictures of women from this period were painted for titillation, a form of pornography if truth be told, but I don’t think this is the case with Rosetti’s painting. It’s a powerful picture portraying a sensuous, but very strong woman, very much in control of her destiny and more than capable of dominating her admirers.

The model for the painting was Janey Morris. She came from a fairly ordinary background. Her father was a stableman in Oxford and she was spotted by Rossetti and some of his circle when they were in the city. A number of them seem to have fallen in love with her and she ended up marrying William Morris. Rossetti was pretty much obsessed with her and they had an affair, which seems to have been accepted by her husband, from 1865  until his death in 1882. She modelled for a number of his paintings as well as for other Pre-Raphaelites.

Rossetti had his own view of female beauty

soulful eyes, sensuous rosebud mouth and luxuriant, flowing hair,

and he incorporates this into his paintings of Janey, including Astarte Syriaca, where he makes her appear much more glamorous than was actually the case.

Janey Morris

Janey Morris – Image from here

There’s a good article about Janey, and her relationship with Morris and Rosetti, here.

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2 thoughts on “Rossetti’s “Astarte Syriaca”

    • Yes, there is an excellent collection. I guess it reflects the period when the gallery was established and the tastes of the rich benefactors who got the collection started.

      And Rossetti is my favourite Pre-Raphaelite.

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