Found,
Painted by Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882),
Painted in 1854–1855, 1859–1881,
unfinished Oil on canvas
© The Delaware Art Museum / Alamy

Found,
Painted by Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882),
Painted in 1854–1855, 1859–1881,
unfinished Oil on canvas
© The Delaware Art Museum / Alamy

Gospel of 14 December 2021

Prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you

Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

Reflection on the Painting

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus warns us ‘tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you’. If I may show you today a slightly more challenging painting depicting a prostitute. Our painting by Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti tackles a sensitive Victorian moral subject at the time: urban prostitution. Although the work remained incomplete at Rossetti's death in 1882, he always considered it one of his most important works, returning to it many times from the mid-1850s until the year before his death. In 1870 Rossetti published a sympathetic poem about a prostitute, Jenny, which may well be the lady he depicted here. During Rosetti’s time it is believed that over 80,000 prostitutes were active in London.

When we read today’s Gospel reading, it is easy to gloss over the word ‘prostitute’. But Jesus knew the hardship of these women and how they were neglected and looked down upon by society. So if the broken lady who is in clear turmoil will go to heaven before us, then what must we do to re-align ourselves to God?!

In 1855, in a letter to fellow artist William Holman Hunt, Rosetti described the composition of the painting as follows: ‘The picture represents a London street at dawn, with the lamps still lighted along a bridge which forms the distant background. A drover has left his cart standing in the middle of the road (in which, i. e. the cart, stands baa-ing a calf tied on its way to market), and has run a little way after a girl who has passed him, wandering in the streets. He has just come up with her and she, recognising him, has sunk under her shame upon her knees, against the wall of a raised churchyard in the foreground, while he stands holding her hands as he seized them, half in bewilderment and half guarding her from doing herself a hurt. These are the chief things in the picture which is to be called "Found," and for which my sister Maria has found me a most lovely motto from Jeremiah ... The calf, a white one, will be a beautiful and suggestive part of the thing, though I am far from having painted him as well as I hoped to do’…

Looking at the calf a little closer, it parallels the situation of the prostitute. The calf is an innocent animal 'trapped on its way to be sold on the market’. So is the life of the prostitute in our painting, she is trapped in her situation. A harsh reality. So looking at the expression of the woman’s face now, what is it? Is she rejecting to be saved by the man? Is she simply ashamed to be recognised by someone she knows? … or is she repentant but unable to escape her fate, like the calf?…

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