Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca

Manchester City Art Galleries

Date: 1875-1877
Technique: Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 183 cm

Even in near—modern times, Asherah, also known as Astarte, retained her grip on the Christian imagination, not least because of the fervent denunciations of the Old Testament prophets, known to every student of the Bible. Her image renewed its potency as a synibol of rebellion as late as the time of the Pre—Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828—82).

Rossetti’s painting Astarte Syriaca romantically evokes the divine power of women, within the context of the nascent pan—European Symbolist Movement, and can at the same time be read as a covert denunciation of patriarchal Victorian Christianity. The painting carries other messages as well. It is a near—portrait of Janey Morris, wife of Rossetti's fellow Pre—Raphaelite William Morris (1834—96), with whom Rossetti was conducting an adulterous affair. The two male figures placed symmetrically in the background speak of the goddess’s—and by implication Janey’s—power to ensorcell men. She is therefore both an incarnation of the goddess of love and the personification of the Fatal Woman.

One fascinating aspect of Rossetti’s image, and of the other, closely similar paintings he made at this time, is that he simultaneously exalts the power of women and condemns it. The same theme can be found spelled out explicitly in some of the poetry that Rossetti wrote.

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 of 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 spheres' 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.

D. G. Rossetti

Source 1
Source 2

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