Many artists depict the people they love. Others want to show what love is or should be. Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved ideas, including the idea of love. He used both words and paintings to describe what he thought love should be.
He shared his ideal in La Bella Mano. To make sure we understood Rossetti embedded many symbols of pure love, of the Virgin and of Venus, in the painting. Once those symbols would have been obvious to those who saw them, but they are no longer obvious to many of us.
The iris and the lemon tree symbolize the Virgin, the rose the Virgin and Venus, the scalloped shell in which the personification of love washes her hands the shell from which Venus arose when she was born.
To make his ideas even clearer, he used a poem to reinforce the visual themes. In it he speaks of hand washing hand in water as pure as that Venus sprang from, of receiving gifts as Venus did from her handmaidens, of virginal beauty. He says this woman of beauty, love and delicate purity, descended from Venus, will wait for the ideal lover who will hold those delicate hands.
He wishes us to fall in love with the idea of a pure and beautiful love.
LA BELLA MANO.
(FOR A PICTURE.)
O lovely hand, that thy sweet self dost lave
In that thy pure and proper element,
Whence erst the Lady of Love’s high advènt
Was born, and endless fires sprang from the
Even as her Loves to her their offerings gave,
For thee the jewelled gifts they bear; while each
Looks to those lips, of music-measured speech
The fount, and of more bliss than man may crave.
In royal wise ring-girt and bracelet-spann’d,
A flower of Venus’ own virginity,
Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band;
In maiden-minded converse delicately
Evermore white and soft; until thou be,
O hand! heart-handsel’d in a lover’s hand.