An assessment of one of the most important works of pre Raphaelite art

'The Vale Of Rest' by John Millais - an assessment by M.A.Meddings

What is not immediately apparent to the casual observer are number of subliminal images contained in this work by John Millais painted in 1858 and later repainted in 1862 in order to perfect the figure of the Nun toiling at digging the grave.

It was in my view one of Millais most 'sinister' works of art and i find within it an antithesis of what one might suppose is contained therein. Outwardly it is a religious work yet if one examines the painting a little at a time one finds a host of secular images that are so prophetic  mankind that it easily out ranks in my view that other master piece by Millais contemporary William Holman Hunt  'The light of the world'.

I find no love as some do in the painting, not even the love of god for in my view the picture expresses all the excesses of human nature and to that end rather than being a peaceful painting as the title suggests i find it to be full of turmoil.

The central figure and the boundary of the golden section is the Nun embroiled in the task of digging. Millais has in one fell swoop defined the central theme of dogged determination to complete the onorous task of internment before the light fades.

Just take heed of the womans apron soiled and crumpled as of one who has toiled day long under the hot sun and who now towards evenings has seen the results of her efforts almost reach completion.

Do you see how the muscles of her forarm flex and moves as she lifts each clod of earth . one can almost feel the ache and cramp in her muscles as she lifts and throws the earth. What finer example in British art is there of the dogged determination of one in the service of the lord to do her duty come what may. Is not hers the sense of loyalty and service that Christ gave at Golgotha.

Yet what of her companion who sits and watches the toil of others is there not a mark upon her prisitine habit, and does not the smug smile on her face signify the idea that 'Dont look at me to help I am doing my bit in prayers at Vespers' such toil is for noviciates. True worship of the lord is for finely dressed ones such as I

Such a prephetic idea so cleverly immortalised here. The worker and watcher, the giver and taker, images of selfless devotion and selfish involvement, or lack of it. When it was painted a powerful exposition of much of Victorian society.

It was a brave  device that Millais uses to great effect for non but the pre Raphaelites would use two religious forms to suggest good and bad toil and idleness. Millais achieves it spectacularly.

Yet there are within the painting deeper less obvious themes.

Note the bell in the tower central to the back ground. Still now yet minutes from now it will begin to toll the death knell, it is that kind of bell a single stoke every five minutes through out the night until dawn, what an image of impending doom, as is the black cloud looming in the evening sky.

Approaching night, the end of mankind, As did a sudden darkness descend at the cross as Jesus died .  

Even the subdued lighting from the left hand side of the painting suggesats the fading light of an April evening yet form the look of the trees this painting depicts a cemetary much later in the year.

yet theire is a cold chill that descends upon the scene as one looks again and again at the painting

So important was the figure of the digging Nun to Millais theme that it is known that he painted and repainted her again and again unti lhe got it right.

Is there ever a colder place than that grave yard? Is there ever such turmoil under the guise of restfulness 




Poetry by lastromantichero The PoetBay support member heart!
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Written on 2008-01-03 at 22:42

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"Ora et labora" was the rule that St Benedict gave to his monks: Pray and work. Each of these two sisters seems to be taking care of one half of it!
Seriously, hero: Thank you for this new lesson in history of art!

Rob Graber
Very interesting! But isn't there a passage in which Jesus tells someone to attend a banquet or something, and let the dead take care of their own? From this perspective the hardworking nun is engaged in a futile exercise, while the tranquil one has seen the light? This is off the top of my head; I don't know the painting. Much would depend on the espression on the idle nun's face. Does she look serene, or only smug? Again, a very interesting post!

Christian Lanciai The PoetBay support member heart!
Indeed, assessing a picture is like penetrating a book - you find most of the stuff between the lines. But it certainly is a marvellous composition. Just an idea: it might be the nuns digging the grave for Jean Valjean's escape out of the nunnery in "The Miserables".

Kathy Lockhart The PoetBay support member heart!
Michael there are many messages in this painting and I love how you have taken the time to interpret them. I see your points and after i look at it again, with my untrained eye, I see the working nun's digging of the grave (perhaps her own) as sacrifice (symbolic of Christ's sacrifice) for the one who sits in oblivion of what is truly being done for her (mankind).The toll of the bell, the dark looming cloud I too see as representations of death's approach. The very clearly displayed cross lying on the skirt of the nun who is sitting and watching has some significance I think too. I would love to see this painting up close and personal. I think I could sit and get lost in it. So much is said through art and I appreciate your fine eye and your amazing ability to recognize those things that many of us miss. Your ability to teach, share, and enlighten creates true art appreciation in those who, like me, are certainly affected by the art but maybe just don't know why. Thank you for this wonderfully written text. I enjoyed it so much.

(I have a beautiful memory of a enchanting time in a certain museum in Edinburgh where I experienced a piece of Heaven while exploring amazing pieces of art with a very wonderful gentleman who does and will ever own my heart.)