Jane Eyre’s Three Paintings: Biblical Warnings & Greek Legends
By Peter Bolt, English Department, North East Worchester College [England]
Charlotte Brontë’s ability to use her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible first appears in her painting of a frieze on a medieval church that tells an unfolding story in pictures. On his first full day back at Thornfield (Vol I, Ch 13), Jane describes her painting, first explaining that “as I saw them with a spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking.”
This first painting, a scene of a desolate shipwreck, portrays a cormorant: “its beak held a gold bracelet, set with gems.” The cormorant is the key to understanding the work, but only it becomes so when conjoined with Jane’s portrait of Blanche Ingram (Vol II, Ch 1), which she painted before Jane had met her. The link between the two paintings is the jewellery. Whilst painting her imagined likeness of Blanche Ingram, she is determined, we are told, to “omit neither diamond ring or gold bracelet,”: the cormorant is Lady Ingram, for this is an allusion to Leviticus 11:17, which is repeated in Deuteronomy and elaborated upon in Isaih 34:11 and again repeated in Zephania: the cormorant is unholy carrion dwelling amongst desolation and despair. The reader will become only too aware of the contempt Blanche and her friends have for their social inferiors (in particular for educated women such as Jane Eyre/Charlotte Brontë savagely illustrated in Vol I, Ch 2). This painting is Jane (and Brontë’s) riposte.
The second painting is not religious but belongs to Greek legend. It portrays the “Evening Star;” the “foreground only the dim peak of a hill . . . leaves slanting as if by a breeze. . . .Rising into into the sky, was a woman’s shape to the bust.” The painting is immediately identified by Rochester, who asks Jane, “Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos.” In Greek legend Latmos, or more correctly Mt Latmos, is where the goddess Selene first saw and fell in love with Endymion, vowing to protect him for ever. Already we are informed of Jane’s emotional commitment at only her second meeting with Rochester. It should also be noted that it is Rochester, not Jane, who identifies the setting for the painting.
The third and final painting in Jane Eyre is the most enigmatic of the three. It is “a head, — a colossal head….Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds….gleamed a ring of white flame….This pale crescent was ‘The likeness of a kingly crown’ what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” For the message hidden within this strange painting we must again look to the Book of Job. “I put on my righteousness as a garment and it clothed me; justice like a cloak or a turban (diadem) wrapped me round. I was eyes to the blind and feet was I to the lame,” (Job 24: 14 -15). At the end of the novel when Jane and Rochester are eventually re-united at Ferndean, he is both blind and a cripple — thus fulfilling the prophecy of Jane’s painting.