Holiday ritual in the boyhood home of Jesus

Jesus celebrating Passover

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English, 1828-1882), The Passover in the Holy Family, 1855-56. Unfinished watercolor on paper, 40.6 × 43.2 cm. Tate Britain, London.

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. ‘Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,’ — did God say
By Moses’ mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

The pyre is piled. What agony’s crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy’s fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained. 


Under the commission of John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti set to work on a watercolor in 1855 depicting the child Jesus with his family (mom, uncle, cousin) making preparations for their celebration of Passover. Before Rossetti could paint in Joseph with the lamb and Elisabeth lighting the pyre, however, and insert further detail, Ruskin intercepted the work, worrying that Rossetti’s already-numerous revisions, if continued, would corrupt it. “I had to carry the drawing off,” Ruskin said, “finished or unfinished. You see, Rossetti has cut the head of Christ out and put in a fresh one. He put it in and scraped it out so many times, that I feared he would end by scraping the whole thing clean away—so I carried it off.”

As part of his work process for The Passover in the Holy Family, Rossetti wrote a sonnet on the subject, which helped him flesh out the concept. He returned to the poem in 1869 for minor revision and had it published in his volume Poems the following year.

Both painting and poem are chock-full of typology. Every action, every prop, has a meaning that anticipates Jesus’s forthcoming ministry, especially his sacrificial death. The fact that the first day of the Jewish festival of Passover falls on Good Friday this year makes Rossetti’s work all the more ripe for reflection.

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