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A nun looks at a Passion flower, symbolising the crucifixion of Christ. In her left hand, she holds a religous book open at an image of the Virgin Mary. The frame, designed by Millais, reads: SICUT LILIUM ('As the lily among the thorns') from the Song of Solomon. This was traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, as was the enclosed garden.
The flowers in the painting symbolise various traits of a nun including remembrance (Forget-me-nots), purity (Madonna lillies), constancy (Evergreen trumpet honeysuckle) and most of all passion for christ (the Passion flower she holds in her hand). This theme is emphasized by the book in her hand which is open on the Annunciation an example of faithful obediant service.
Collins painted the background while staying in Oxford; the flowers were painted in the garden of the Clarendon Press, where he was a guest of the Combes. The painting is executed in the minutely detailed style of the early Pre-Raphaelites, though Collins was never a member of the Brotherhood. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851 and was one of the works which inspired Ruskin's defence of young artists.
Artist/makerCharles Alston Collins (1828 - 1873)
Date1851 - 1851
Material and technique
oil on canvas
Dimensions84 x 59 cm (height x width)
No. of items
Bequeathed by Mrs Thomas Combe, 1893.
Museum locationThird floor | Gallery 66 | Pre-Raphaelites
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Casteras, Susan P., ‘Virgin Vows: The Early Victorian Artists' Portrayal of Nuns and Novices’, Victorian Studies: Volume 24, Number 2, (1981), illus. p. 171 fig. 3
Tate Britain, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell and Stephen Wildman (London, 2000), p. 35, illus. p. 35 fig. 9