Isabella and the Pot of Basil - a Gothic theme

16th January 2014
The Pre-Raphaelites and the late Victorians loved painting the theme of Isabella (or Isabetta) and the pot of basil. This one, I must say, is my favourite rendition. By John White Alexander:
painting of woman in long white gown, with pot
John White Alexander: Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897.


The theme has its origin in the early Renaissance novel of 1351 'The Decameron' by Giovanni Boccaccio. This was later taken up by the English romantic poet John Keats in his work 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.' I do like these lines:

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

The Story

So why is Isabella weeping over her basil? The story by Boccaccio tells us of a young maid, Isabetta, whose wealthy family, consisting of three brothers, intended her to marry well but who were disturbed and angered when they discovered that she has fallen in love with a servant, Lorenzo. The brothers subsequently trick Lorenzo into going away with them on business. They slay him and bury his body in an unmarked grave.

Isabetta misses Lorenzo and dreams of his ghost, which informs her of where he is buried. She goes to the grave and in her grief removes Lorenzo's head. This she conceals inside a large pot covered with earth and planted with the herb basil. Every day she waters the earth with her tears of grief and sorrow, and the plant flourishes. Her private ritual is discovered, however, and the pot removed. Poor Isabetta! Eventually she perishes from grief. So hardly a happy ending.
pre-raphaelite painting of dinner group in Renaissance clothing
Millais painting of Lorenzo and Isabella contrasts the behavior of the boorish brothers with the couple's tender companionship.


This gruesome preoccupation with headless themes has resonances throughout history. There is the Biblical story of Salome and the Baptist, for instance. And what about our own fascination with our beheaded kings and queens of history - Anne Boleyn, King Charles, and so on? A universal theme.
pub sign, the king's head
The unfortunate Charles I is a popular theme in 'Kings Head' pub-signs.
It is certainly easy to see why the story became such an attractive motif among enthusiast of the Gothic and the Romantic. There is a wronged maiden; macabre scenes and great pathos and tragedy. It also lent itself well to those Victorian artists wanting to demonstrate their skills through the Still Life genre, with foliage, flowers and ceramics and so on. They could also at the same time present their audience with the image of a beautiful grieving maiden. The perfect combination.
painting of young Victorian woman, seated, embracing pot
By George Henry Manton.
Of course, we could just dismiss all this as a rather morbid Victorian obsession that produced some lovely works of art and poetry. But there is just a little more to it than that.

A pot of basil

Basil is an aromatic and culinary, plant - also valued for its attractive appearance. A herb that goes particularly well, as all cooks know, with  tomato dishes - prominent in Italian cuisine, therefore. The name derives from the Greek word for 'royal' basilikos. In a sense it is the king of herbs, and was held in such esteem in ancient times that it is thought that only kings were permitted to cut it.

The same root word gives us Basilica - a prominent church building of long rectangular shape. So definitely with royal and holy connections. In ancient times it was also recognised as a herb of love. It was also burned during funeral rites as a symbol of the bond between the living and the dead. So the story begins to make more sense when viewed in the light of these traditions.
looking down on a pot of basil, green leafs
Sweet Basil growing
mostly text, a banner ad linking to novel


Holy basil, or Tulsi as it is called in India, is a sacred plant dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu (and his earthly avatar, Krishna). It takes its name from one of Vishnu's consorts, and is considered to be specifically holy to women. One legend has the tears of Vishnu's giving birth to the plant. It is grown in courtyards of traditional Hindu homes and is used not only in offerings, but in medicine and herbal treatments for a wide variety of complaints. It is said to have an uplifting and strengthening effect on the mind and body through awakening sentiments of love and spiritual harmony.
Indian religious icon, lady in blue-green dress with garland
Icon of Tulsi.
Usually, it is the women of the household who care for the sacred Tulsi plant. It is they who water it daily (the men are charged with the cutting of it). The very act of watering is thought to be holy and leads to virtue. Water mixed with the Tulsi leaves is given to the dying to raise their departing souls to heaven.
small tree growing in courtyard setting
Tulsi plant in coutyard - contained in a tiered stone urn.


On a purely mundane level, the story can remind us that, although excessive grieving (and the Victorians knew all about excessive grieving), can produce something tangible and real in the form of the flourishing plant, when all is said and done it isn't anything that can't be bought for a few shillings at the nearest florist or garden nursery. A pot of basil watered by tears may be lovely enough as a Gothic motif. But is it worth the pain and all-consuming kind of morbid grief that humans can fall prey to? It is a reminder that we need to let go of grief eventually and move on if we are to avoid the fate of Isabella.

In the traditions of the Hindu Tulsi, on the other hand, the emotions of grieving and love are transformed through veneration. It becomes something sacred and holy and therefore unifying. Perhaps it is a notion lodged deep in our collective psyche - an archetypal memory. And therein lies the secret of why the theme of Isabella and her pot of Basil has endured, and no doubt will continue to endue, for so long.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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