OXFORD.- This is one of the finest, most dazzling, and unusual Pre-Raphaelite depictions of Mary you are likely to see. Resplendent in blue, jewels encasing her cloak and crown - Mary, the Mother of God, sits, calmly reading, flanked by celebratory verses and blooming lilies. The mixed media use of paint, embroidery, jewels, metalwork and wooden panelling combine together to make this a fine, and extremely rare item.
If you think you vaguely recognise her pose, you are on the right track. This mixed media triptych on wooden panel, painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, is based on Jan van Eycks The Virgin Mary, in the masterful Ghent Altarpiece. The 15th Century Flemish Ghent Altarpiece has had a lasting impact on the course of art history and is a world treasure. Art history continues to develop and evolve, and it is very exciting to see the British Pre-Raphaelite tradition entwine with the Flemish tradition in such a celebratory and aesthetically remarkable way.
So just how did this work come to be? It was designed and made by the famous Rowley Gallery, founded in London, 1898. Owner Albert Rowley was captivated by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the early wood panels created by the gallery were in the Arts and Crafts style, based on paintings by other artists, such as John Everett Millais and James Abbot Whistler. The gold background, rich blue dress, and long wavy hair make the van Eyck depiction of the Virgin Mary perfect for translating into the Pre-Raphaelite style, and therefore perfect for the Rowley Gallery. Adapting it to their own unique style, they have created something truly special. The artist has used embroidery of the most exceptionally high standard to model the waves in Marys hair and folds in her dress, and actual beads and jewels to bring Marys crown and cloak to life. The gold leaf represents the radiance of heaven, and Latin verses of celebration encircle her head and flank her sides.
The Latin words above the Virgins head read: She is more beautiful than the sun and the army of the stars; compared to the light she is superior. She is truly the reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of God. The banner above the lilies on the two side panels reads: Ave Maria gratia plena / Benedicta tu in muli, in English - Hail Mary, full of grace / Blessed art thou amongst women.
The lilies on the panels symbolise Mary and her purity, and are a repeated theme in Pre-Raphaelite works; one of Dante Gabriel Rossettis most famous pieces, Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) depicts a lily stem in a vase, extremely similar to the one on the triptych panels. Similarly, there are long lily stems in the painting and on the frame of Convent Thoughts (1850-1), by Charles Allston Collins. The Truth to Nature ethos of the Pre-Raphaelite work means that flowers were frequently included for their symbolism. They also placed considerable emphasis on the frame, and framing was what the Rowley Gallery excelled in. The delicate metal work that surrounds the panels, and the balanced, elegant top and bottom to the triptych are of a remarkably high standard of craftsmanship.
The style of the label on the back, which was designed by William Chase, dates this work to between 1912-1920. It is excellent to still have this famous Rowley Gallery label still attached to the work, giving it fantastic provenance.
The story of Western Art is long, involved and exciting. This Triptych is a fantastic part of this, combining Christian heritage, C15th wonders, and Pre-Raphaelite romance and sensitivity. It stands, unique and resplendent, as a joyful celebration of art history and craftsmanship.