“Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought”:
Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Camelot
in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855)

José María Mesa Villar

Universidad de Jaén
jmvillar@ujaen.es


 

   
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Resumen: Since Rossetti executed most of his Arthurian works between 1857 and 1864, it has often been thought that his medievalist turn was primarily determined by his friends William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Our paper attempts to foreground the existence of previous influences triggering his interest in Malory, which would crystallize in the watercolour Arthur’s Tomb (1854). By means of an interdisciplinary analysis, we will collect a set of evidences leading us to assert that Rossetti had already developed a personal view of Le Morte Darthur (1485) in the early 1850s. We will also state that his watercolour proves not merely a literal rendition of the last meeting between Lancelot and Guenevere: it rather points at the glory and fall of Camelot on the basis of individual failure and the prevalence of individual desire over a common, iconic structure of stability.
Palabras clave: Rossetti, Malory, interdisciplinary analysis, women and Pre-Raphaelitism, Victorian medievalism.

 

1. On the Connections between Rossettian Medievalism and Malory’s Arthuriad

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s career unfolds along three main stages defined on the basis of his programmatic aims, self-definition procedures and subject matter choices. We must note, nonetheless, the existence of transitional periods -between these- that softened his path into each new area of expression. Rossetti’s aesthetic vision should not be assessed as a plain sum of interests, but rather as an eclectic tendency involving notions of positive appropriation, revision and adaptation of a certain amount of contents to one’s objectives and techniques. During his formative period (1847-1854), parallel to the genesis and early decline of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti grew openly mistrustful of the conventional modes of representation fostered by academic circles, which usually led to the creation of too technical paintings plainly imitative of neoclassical modes. Together with his fellows John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, he attempted to regain the type of artistic sincerity and uniqueness of style seen in painters such as Giotto, Cimabue, Van Eyck or Raphael. But this did not imply rejecting the work of other artists and authors [1], either contemporary or belonging to their most immediate tradition. In fact, Rossetti usually combined this antiquarian disposition with personal taste and a more idiosyncratic idea of aesthetic revelation. For instance, his seminal short story Hand and Soul (1849-1850), which introduced the ‘mystical maiden’ as a main element in the artistic process, drew some of her traits from the Classic muse types, neo-platonic modes, the stilnovist donna angelicata (mainly Dante’s Beatrice) and the aura of mystery about Edgar Allan Poe’s revenants.

As Chiaro was in these thoughts, the fever encroached slowly in his veins […] silence was a painful music, that made the blood ache in his temples; and he lifted his face and his deep eyes. A woman was present in his room, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, fashioned to that time. It seemed that the first thoughts he had ever known were given him as at first from her eyes, and he knew her hair to be the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams […] he felt her to be as much with him as his breath. (McGann (ed.) 2003: 314)

Theoretically speaking, both as a representation of the creative soul and a mediatrix between the sensible and the intelligible, the maiden encourages the artist to delve within himself in order to enter the transcendent realm of artistic inspiration. However, by addressing this course of action, Rossetti painfully noticed his dependence on tradition and so developed a certain anxiety towards the idea of having been anticipated by the past. While increasing his inspiration, gazing back in time seemed to leave ‘uniqueness’ far from his reach. Almost in therapeutic terms, his gothic tale St Agnes of Intercession, begun in 1850 but not finished until 1870, offered him an opportunity to render this inner conflict and contributed to purge it by hinting at the concept of a common human essence. Its readers then could come to understand that people belonging to different synchronies might have felt enraptured by similar experiences or moved by a set of comparable emotions, and so could have employed analogous modes of expression. Rossetti, nevertheless, understood that these conceptions should not lead to develop a soulless copy of tradition: studying and understanding the past could make up for contemporary shortcomings. Most importantly, this course of action implied reading both past and present under a different, yet familiar and inspiring, ray of light. The artist then became not just a passenger between the different layers of reality, but also a voyager in time sojourning the limits of space and time on the wings of artistic craftsmanship. In our view, this tendency permeated not only through the Pre-Raphaelites’ search for authenticity but also the Victorian revival’s quest for permanent values and ideals to be employed anew, either for moral or political reasons [2].

Rossetti’s medievalist period (1854-1867) proves particularly useful to track his evolution from the somewhat derivative flavour of his early years up to the positive assimilation of topics into an artistic scheme of his own. During his second creative stage, it was through the adoption of Arthurian topics, mainly drawn from Malory and Tennyson, that he managed not only to build a thematic bridge between two synchronies, but also to draw upon different codes of behaviour and ethics in order to approach the notion of ‘inner balance’ in individuals: to this respect, the contrast between Launcelot and Galahad that Rossetti often found in his sources proved especially fruitful to develop his own forms and contents along a series of medievalist works. We should not forget either that this structure of opposites was also applied to the female field, as in the distemper panel Sir Launcelot’s Vision of the Sanc Grael (1857), which confronts Queen Guenevere, as a referent of sensuousness, with the Damsel of the Holy Grail, understood as the embodiment of spiritual perfection [3].

During his last creative period (1860-1882), Rossetti would nonetheless expand this dichotomy along a series of double works bringing together his famous female portraits and a set of companion poems. Unlike her previous categorization in terms of salvation or condemnation, woman now became a referent crucial for the artist’s development of a full dialectics of beauty, which was regarded as art’s anima, that is to say, the main, transcendent force behind art itself [4]. Within this scheme, Rossetti employed his double works as a network of images and contents displaying the various faces and implications of this ultimate ideal. Rather than supporting the prevalence of spirit against flesh, he now introduced a notion of potentiality between both and promoted a concept of perfect balance through their orderly co-existence. We may then state that the last two decades in his career finally allowed Rossetti to adopt his dual identity as a painter-poet and reach a more personal perspective upon artistic expression. By combining the aforementioned notions of re-evaluation and positive assimilation with his own personal and professional dilemmas, he managed to establish a dialogue with the tradition which he had fed upon -while at the same time maintaining the sense of uniqueness he initially felt so difficult to attain. Our analysis of Rossetti’s progress along the ways of art leads us to assert that his medievalist period implied not only a change in terms of subject matter and gradual detachment from the slightly derivative tendencies of youth. In our view, this stage also functioned as a safe breeding ground setting the corner stones of his ultimate aesthetic vision and contributing to the development of a more comfortable relation with tradition, combining both ‘identity’ and ‘distinction’.

Modern critical accounts on Pre-Raphaelitism often render William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones as the main personalities triggering Rossetti’s medievalist turn and so set an example of their early collaboration through the so-called Jovial Campaign: between August 1857 and March 1858, the three of them, together with other artists [5] in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, decorated the bays at the Oxford Union Debating Hall with a series of ‘frescoes’ -actually distemper murals- based on Le Morte Darthur (1485). On account of this, it is generally believed that these new acquaintances introduced Rossetti to Malorian content.

By 1856, Burne-Jones was determined to meet Rossetti. He went to London and visited the Working Men’s College, where Rossetti lectured […] (he) responded with great warmth, inviting the shy lad to his studio. Soon after, Rossetti travelled to Oxford to meet Morris. By the end of the year Rossetti had strengthened Burne-Jones’ conviction to become a painter, and they worked together in Rossetti’s studio while Morris read aloud from the Southey Le Morte Darthur. (Mancoff 1990: 156)

The fact that Rossetti carried out most of his medieval subjects after 1856 seems to endorse this perspective. However, certain creative aspects and biographical hints from the early 1850s allow us to shape a different picture. For instance, Doughty’s massive volume DGR: Victorian Romantic states that Morris and Burne-Jones actually “hid their delight in Morte d’Arthur [sic] until they heard Gabriel praise it and the Bible as the two greatest books in the world” (1960 (1949): 207). Most importantly, his sound treatment of Arthurian matter in the watercolour Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) suggests that Rossetti had already read Malory’s work, at least partially, in the early 1850s. But this does not mean that his interest in chivalry might have been limited to that precise date: some of the drawings he produced between 1836 and 1847, namely as a reaction to his readings of childhood and adolescence [6], clearly reflect his fondness of Walter Scott’s novels and display a certain morbid interest in fight scenes, which he would re-enact in later decades through the watercolours The Death of Breuse sans Pitié (1857), [7] and Fight for a Woman (1865). Despite these examples, Rossetti’s works during his medievalist period clearly show a withdrawal from this type of ‘muscular chivalry’ and tend to promote Galahad as a model figure of spiritual prowess: actually, although he finally executed only one of them, the three scenes he planned for the bays at the Debating Hall in Oxford were intended to stress the contrast between both types of chivalry especially in terms of the aforesaid comparison between Galahad’s attainment of the Holy Grail and Launcelot’s deep slumber before the shrine of the sacred vessel. Rossetti’s focus on this topic may be understood as a clue indicating that his initial attachment to Arthurian lore could have taken place during the early 1840s: although Ivanhoe (1819) was his favourite novel by then, he had also read Marmion (1809), which could have led him to become interested in Launcelot’s figure [8]. Another stimulus prompting direct contact with Malory’s authentic medievalism, would have come from Tennyson’s poems Morte d’Arthur, Sir Galahad and Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenevere, published in 1842 and revised some years later in order to be included in the various reworked editions of Idylls of the King (1859-1891). Indeed, the presence of the laureate in the List of Immortals [9], drawn up by W. H. Hunt and D. G. Rossetti in 1848, suggests not only several readings of his poems [10] in previous years but also appoints the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as one of the first to rank Tennyson among the mainstays of English literature -despite his slow initial steps [11]. Further biographical details support that both William Michael Rossetti and his brother Dante Gabriel kept up to date with Tennyson’s creative advances [12] and attended regularly various poetic meetings, sometimes at the Browning’s residence [13], in which the laureate read his own works. This closeness would in time bear fruit through the various illustrations that Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were asked to contribute for the upcoming 1854 Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poems: even though Arthurian subjects were a minority group in the volume, they became the preferential option -not the only one, though- in Rossetti’s pictorial array. The project, which may be regarded as the last joint venture of the original Pre-Raphaelites, proved somewhat unsatisfactory to the artist: not only did he accuse the engravers (W. J. Linton and the Dalziel brothers) of ruining his original designs but also expressed open disagreement regarding the final list of collaborators:

Publisher Edward Moxon had finally found Rossetti at home a year past, explaining that as well as the three leading PRBs, the illustrators engaged included older artists -Maclise, Mulready, Clarkson Stanfield, J. C. Horsley. Gabriel was contemptuous. “The right names would have been Millais, Hunt, Madox Brown, Hughes, a certain lady and myself. NO OTHERS,” he told Allingham. (Marsh 1999: 155)

The quote above allows us to bring up Rossetti’s unfruitful attempt to include Elizabeth Siddal in the Moxon project. Rather than fronting her status by then as his girlfriend, this event distinguishes her, at least in Rossetti’s view, as a faithful follower of Tennyson’s work. In fact, the existence of joint works such as the watercolour Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail (1855-1856), based on previous sketches carried out by Miss Siddal about 1853, illustrates how this female model, painter and poet contributed to chisel Rossetti’s Arthurian sensibility and choice of artistic topics before the 1850s. Still the various influences we have mentioned up to this point prove related to non-medieval sources; even the antiquarian accounts in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which Rossetti also read, prove barely authentic despite their high documentary value: Sir Launcelot du Lake and King Arthur’s Death are loosely based on sections VI: VII-IX and XXI: V from Le Morte Darthur [14]. Meanwhile The Legend of King Arthur combines certain bits of information from Malory’s text and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1138). To this respect, it would seem feasible to affirm that Rossetti’s contact with Burne-Jones and Morris was essential to his ‘Malorian turn’: this would indeed reduce his early Arthurian inspiration to a set of references scattered along various literary works produced between the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries.

Still, a piece missing from this picture of influences, Rossetti’s watercolour Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855), suggests that the artist was already acquainted with Malory’s work before 1857, insofar as its contents differ clearly from the chivalric accounts in Percy, Scott’s references to Launcelot and, most importantly, Tennyson’s treatment of Launcelot and Guenevere in his poetic accounts from 1842. We may agree with Mancoff when she asserts that “it is doubtful that Rossetti (had) read Malory’s text in full” (1990: 157), thus suggesting a somewhat fragmentary knowledge of Le Morte Darthur. However, we may confront this with Whitaker’s (1990:186) mention of an entry in Ford Madox Brown’s diary which registers, as early as April the 1st, 1855, Rossetti’s high praise of Malory’s work together with the Bible, which we quoted before from Doughty. Another example from the same diary, asserts that Brown and Rossetti were considering the possibility of illustrating Malory’s work as early as 1853, [15] a fact which might previously require a somewhat sound knowledge about the volume. Adopting these evidences as a basis, the following section in this article will develop an interdisciplinary analysis of Rossetti’s first Arthurian watercolour: our main concern will be to highlight that the contents and tone poured into it prove both minutely studied and precise enough as to be derived from peripheral influence or a somewhat inattentive reading. In this sense, we do not consider this work “a scene of (Rossetti’s) invention based on Malory’s tale of the last meeting of Arthur’s greatest knight and queen” (Mancoff, 1990: 147) but mainly a daring first approach to Le Morte Darthur adopting section XXI: IX as a basis to develop a sound analysis on the reasons and implications bound to the glory and fall of Camelot. Hence, the visual rendition proves by no means restrictive, but rather expansive in terms of substance and management. This will allow us to term Rossetti’s contact with Morris and Burne-Jones as a period of mutual enrichment based on their common adoration of Malory, but not as an introductory step into an authentic late-medieval retelling of the story of the Arthurian court.

 

2. Assessing the Tragic End of Camelot as Portrayed in Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855)

Following King Arthur’s death in the Battle of Salisbury, Queen Guenevere decides to shut herself away from the world in a convent. Meanwhile, unaware of his lord’s destiny, Launcelot arrives in Dover with a formidable force in order to help him against Mordred. However, the veil of fatality has already fallen upon the realm of Logris, transforming this last demonstration of power and return to unity into a mere afterthought: the main knight in Camelot is on time only to attend Sir Gawain’s exequies. Within this crepuscular context, and maybe continuing the rescue pattern often found along Malory’s work, Launcelot decides to search for his queen. Even though Arthur’s death is still fresh in the minds of readers, he seems to understand that his affair with Guenevere is no longer a state matter under these circumstances. However, contrariwise to his wishes, the lovers’ last conversation in section XXI: IX bears a clear imprint of remorse:

Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights in the world; for through our love that we have loveth together is my most noble lord slain. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, wit thou well that I am set in such a plight to get my soul’s health […] for as sinful as ever I was are saints in heaven. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 483)

These words illustrate how the queen has come to understand that her relationship with Launcelot has favoured the invalidation, through hostile agency, of Camelot’s corner stones. Quoting Loomis, Guenevere is “the pitiful victim of clashing forces, yet clever enough to save herself from Mordred (and) strong enough, too, in her resolution to forbid her lover to see her again after she had taken the vows” (2000 (1963): 180). Rejecting Launcelot does not really imply that her love for him may have extinguished; it rather points at her growing awareness, after painful experience, of the need to maintain order by remaining faithful to one’s duties and position: this involves reckoning the prevalence of a community over individuals, [16] even at the expense of personal happiness [17]. Nonetheless, this portrait of Guenevere does not prevent us from considering whether King Arthur does not play as well a major role in the ruining of his own realm: early in Le Morte Darthur, the ruler is often struck with notes of skill and magnificence. But, as the work progresses, his figure grows gradually -and inexorably- weaker. Finally, it is during the siege of Benwick that the king is put at his lowest position as Launcelot spares his life on the battlefield and mounts him up back on his steed. This progression allows us to regard Arthur’s greatness in promotional rather than factual terms: his role seems limited to the administration of a magnificent court and the management of a brave company of knights. Even though Guenevere may blurt out to Launcelot “through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed” (XXI: IX), readers have already come to understand that brute force is rather the task of Arthur’s vassals, while he remains mostly an iconic presence. We may venture to say that, given this ascription of functions, the king actually adopts a warrior role only to face Launcelot or Mordred not quite successfully; and it is at that precise point that the narrative instantly transforms him into a legendary corpse, a symbol of greatness, unity and loyalty; a somewhat palpable trace from a glorious past. At this point, we may add that the presence of the king’s tomb in Rossetti’s first Arthurian watercolour (1854-1855) proves not only a substantial addition to the scene described by Malory, but also an example of appropriation particularly relevant in respect to the gradual disintegration of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood towards the mid-1850s. It is in this sense that the reflection upon the world registered in Le Morte Darthur is timely combined with self-expression; as we said earlier, the past may indeed allow us to understand and assimilate the present. The sense of decay and renewal codified in the Arthurian legend marks the beginning of a new aesthetic quest for Rossetti [18].

At first sight, judging from Launcelot’s posture and Guenevere’s gesture, inviting him to restriction, the watercolour Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) seems a visual rendering of the following excerpt in Malory (XXI: IX):

Wherefore madam, I pray thou kiss me and never no more. Nay, said the queen, that shall I never do, but abstain you from such works. (Strachey (ed) 1899 (1868): 483)

However, once this initial impression wears off, we may notice a set of details which do not exactly correspond with this scene. For instance, as soon as we examine the setting, we come to regard our previous identification as merely based on character gestures, but not on the place where they are standing on, which is no longer the Almesbury convent described in Malory’s account: the presence of Arthur’s tomb actually introduces an unfeasible reference to Glastonbury -sometimes regarded as the ‘actual’ site of Avalon [19]. This leads us to mistrust the idea that Rossetti could be developing only a more or less literal visual rendition of a precise section from Le Morte Darthur. The structure of the watercolour, replicating the horizontal shape of the tomb, proves a highly effective device regarding Launcelot’s and Guenevere’s postures, which seem to imply that both got over the ruler’s effigy during the course of their previous relationship. This iconic love triangle becomes the very centre of the visual work in terms of both, form and content, thus allowing Rossetti to offer a combination of references about the glory, faults and fall of Camelot. After the king’s death, Guenevere holds onto his tomb, as the figurative representation of a past ideal, in order to rebuke Launcelot for his daring attitude towards her. But, at the same time, the tomb’s iconicity allows it to function as a cluster of notions bound to King Arthur as a whole, and so, in replicating its horizontal structure, the watercolour frames the couple and develops a backwards reference, thus mixing the lovers’ transgression with that of the restrictive atmosphere that they had to face. Arthur proves ambivalent in this sense as the main obstacle, but also as their main support. In our view, then, Rossetti developed a particularly sensitive picture of the crepuscular image seen in Malory and also of the reasons leading to Camelot’s fall. Hence, he would be clearly fronting a conflict between the ideal and the human, a topic which would dominate Arthurian-themed Victorian images towards the 1870s [20].

Further details prove particularly valuable to assess the watercolour’s closeness to Malory’s account: although dressed as a nun, Guenevere does not lose her queenly status; while the posture of her left arm and hand physically expresses her rejection of Launcelot’s petition, her right arms’ somewhat embraces the dead king’s sculpture, hinting her intention to amend previous flaws. Furthermore, in terms of colour, both her crown and girdle run consonant with the golden traces in Arthur’s tomb. By means of these, Rossetti fronts Guenevere’s attempt to expiate her fault and renew her bonds with her duties and the orderly structure of the past: the ideal proves her only refuge now that the kingdom has collapsed and her main aim is that of cleansing her guilty soul. This backwards referentiality is further supported by the paintings on the visible side of the tomb, which could be regarded literally, as decorative scenes, or figuratively, as the expression of the thoughts suddenly surfacing within Guenevere’s (or also Launcelot’s) mind. The one to the right clearly depicts the arrival of the Grail to the seat of the Round Table in section XIII: VII, which could be regarded as one of the most glorious events in Camelot, immediately before the knights’ departure to search for the holy vessel:

Every knight sat in his own place (for supper) […] Then anon they heard cracking and crying of thunder, that them thought the place should all to-drive. In the midst of this blast entered a sun beam more clearer by seven times than ever they saw day, and all they were alighted of the grace of the Holy Ghost […] Then there entered into the hall the holy Graile covered with white samite […] And there was all the hall full filled with good odours, and every knight had such meats and drinks as he best loved in this world: and when the holy Graile had been borne through the hall, then the holy vessel departed suddenly […] Certes, said the king, we ought to thank Our Lord Jesu greatly, for that he hath shewed us this day at the reverence of this high feast of Pentecost. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 352-353)

The left picture, depicts the arming of Sir Launcelot and so reflects negatively upon his attempt to obtain the queen’s favors soon after the king’s death -not without certain Hamletian overtones. By codifying these notions of order, rank, discipline, obedience, spiritual prowess and, at least on Guenevere’s part, search for atonement, Rossetti is essentially rendering their past love affair as an act of betrayal to the structure which they belonged to and which they should have contributed to support. The whole kingdom suffers from the court’s fracture. According to Treuherz (2003: 175), the left image on the tomb alludes to one of Launcelot’s recent thoughts, shown in section XXI: VIII:

Alas, that ever I should live to hear that most noble king, that made me knight, thus to be overset (i. e. ‘caused to fall’) with his subject in his own realm. (Strachey (ed.)1899 (1868): 482)

This reference proves especially enlightening concerning Rossetti’s contrastive motivation, clearly reflected on the watercolour’s content and structure: Launcelot’s request for a last kiss from Guenevere proves his infatuation to be stronger than the grief he feels for his lord; at the same time, this allows viewers to distinguish between both characters, insofar as the queen becomes partly relieved from her guilt through an act of rejection. We may add, to this respect, certain traces allusive to temptation mostly evident through Launcelot’s attitude, the nearby apple-trees and the snake in the lower left corner of the painting: the latter, for instance, combines an echo of the Edenic fall with the notions of discord in section XXI: IV [21], thus suggesting the presence of an evil influence behind the degradation scheme suffered by the court. This idea might imply a volte-face in terms of characterization, since Launcelot and Guenevere could be regarded as the victims of a will other than theirs. Hence, fatality would be a matter of destiny, in a parallel manner to the contents in Rossetti’s Sir Tristam and La Belle Ysoude Drinking the Love Potion [22] However, the flashy red colour in Launcelot’s garments -allusive to lust- as opposed to Guenevere’s sober habit and demeanour leads to consider that Rossetti was still concerned about a notion of choice when rendering Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855). This, which does not invalidate further comparison with the story of Tristam, allows us to point at similarities and differences in respect to the treatment of both love triangles.

Further implications may be drawn from the apple-trees in the setting which, according to Drew, refer to Avalon (as Arthur’s resting place). Consequently, they would combine two main notions: first, in consonance with the use of green tones, they might refer to a sense of renewal; secondly, taking into account that the island is a place of healing, these apple-trees would stand as representations of the Celtic Tree of Life. It is in this sense that the critic regards Rossetti’s watercolour in terms of a druidic lament over the displacement of the solar cult by Christian religion. To attain this, Drew transforms Guenevere into a lunar queen who, having taken solemn vows, marks the end of ancient spirituality [23]. In our view, this reading somewhat abuses Rossetti’s rendition: even though Celtic content is evidently related to the origins and development of Arthurian lore, this corpus is not so evidently bound either to Rossetti’s milieu before the mid-1850s nor directly present in his literary education [24]. From our point of view, the fruits -indeed golden- of these apple trees do not actually point at the Celtic Tree of Life or the Celtic Apple Queen, but rather reflect Rossetti’s interest in the golden apple of discord, which he would reuse in subsequent works such as his double work Venus Verticordia (1863-1869).

In line with the aforementioned analogy between the ‘Arthur-Guenevere-Launcelot’ and ‘Mark-Ysoude-Tristam’ love triangles, Rossetti could have employed the golden apple motif in order to hint at the forbidden passion between Paris and Helen of Troy [25]: this would not just conjure up a message of continuity in respect to the topic ‘destructive passion’ but would also draw an obvious parallelism between the Trojan war and the civil war climate shaking Logris -through Arthur’s successive clashes against Launcelot and Mordred. Consequently, we may assert that the queen and finest knight in Camelot are still being held mainly responsible for the kingdom’s fall into disgrace. In our view, Rossetti employed the golden apple in order to magnify their relationship through diachronic, cross-cultural projection, a device which could emphasize their guilty nature, the long-running wiles of fatality or, quite differently, the invincible nature of sexual allure. Within this scheme, the concept of temptation, the memory of the original sin and the idea of discord embodied by the serpent prove equally useful to uphold this routine of reinforcement through -allusion to- tradition. This memory of Eden is also rendered in the green field that serves as setting, which seems literally transferred from recent Rossettian watercolours such as The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise (1853-1854): interestingly enough, while the latter renders an image of mutual recognition, accomplishment and spiritual prowess, Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) points at estrangement, failure and moral ruin [26]. In our view, this series of allusions, contrasts, and coincidences, may point at Rossetti’s process of reflection upon Malory’s text and subsequent assimilation into an already existing cultural and literary background.

In technical and compositional matters, Rossetti’s visual work stands out, despite its awkward character postures, mainly because of the use of light and application of colour [27]. Sometimes stippled with white hues, reinforcing the scene’s luminosity, green prevails along a variety of tones -ranging from lime-like or emerald tinges to mossy green. Although this colour has been traditionally deemed symbolic of renewal and springtime splendour, the presence of Arthur’s tomb in the pictorial setting proves weighty enough as to rule out any possibilities of physical return from Avalon. Nonetheless, this idea could be applied to the king’s value as an icon and, more precisely, at least concerning Rossetti’s visual work, Guenevere’s inner struggle along her process of reconciliation with the past after having witnessed the consequences of her forbidden relationship. The context, then, would reflect the queen’s eager turn towards moral restoration; it is not in vain that green remains equidistant from cold and warm colours. While the memory of earlier days remains the queen’s personal stronghold, a set of obstacles appear along her way: Launcelot, as a tantalizing subject; the adder, pointing back at the Edenic fall from grace and the apple-tree, referring to both the Classical apple of discord and Eve’s deception by the serpent. The presence of the coiling animal in Launcelot’s side of the painting may categorize him as an agent of disorder, while Guenevere’s position, between the figurative tomb and the meaningful apple-tree, shows her as the subject being tempted -making an effort to overcome the notions of frailty and destructive beauty sifted through the veiled references to Eve and Helen of Troy. The shadow of the tree falling upon the Grail painting might represent the shadow of evil attempting to cloud spiritual light: to this respect, the use of red, white and gold colours proves not only meaningful but highly useful. Launcelot dresses in red as indicative of his lusty nature; flashy enough as to call up the attention of viewers (and Guenevere’s) instantly, his garments show his value as a “dazzling, centrifugal, male force casting its glow upon all things, with vast and irresistible strength” (Chevalier & Gheerbrant 1996 (1969): 792).. This portrait, consonant with the knight’s allure in Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott (1832), one of Rossetti’s favourites, shows Launcelot’s fleshy radiance as opposed to the golden light in the tomb’s paintings, allusive to bright ideals and the quest for spiritual perfection. We may assume, accordingly, that the shadow cast upon the Grail scene may refer as well to Launcelot’s unworthiness, despite his flamboyance. This is, in fact, one of the thematic axes in the Quest and, most importantly, the basis for the comparison between Galahad and his father which Rossetti would draw in 1857 through the study The Attainment of the Sanc Grael and the distemper panel Sir Launcelot’s Vision of the Sanc Grael. Indeed, further details in the watercolour Arthur’s Tomb lead us to entertain the idea that Rossetti had visualized, at least tentatively, this sort of contrast in the mid-1850s:

i. The left painting on the side of the tomb, the knighting of Launcelot, features a (hardly visible) white unicorn, a symbol of magnificence, strength, and purity -also regarded in terms of chastity. Such supernatural witness is commonly tied as well to a sense of royal justice, which would be clearly related to the role of the knights of the Round Table. Besides, it is important to note the chromatic identity between the unicorn and the white dove [28] which, apart from ‘spiritual growth’ also refers to the sublimation of instincts. It is precisely in this latter sense that both presences reflect most negatively upon Launcelot’s lechery and the serpent’s regressive nature. These white animals, closely linked to two main instances of Camelot’s past glory also offer a definite contrast with Launcelot’s degradation at the present moment, not only by means of his red garments, but also of his black steed, which can be seen grazing in the background: Rossetti could have employed this motif as an allusion to the evil connotations bound to black horses in sections XIV: V-VI [29], and XV: V-VI [30] from Malory’s text. We should not forget either that Launcelot’s posture and attitude towards Guenevere proves radically different from the image of loyalty shown in the tomb’s painting, thus demonstrating that the knight has left behind any notion of loyalty (or even sorrow over the loss of his king) [31].

ii. The red-cross shield, which Launcelot carries on his back, could be regarded as an additional echo from his characterization [32] in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (1832). Nevertheless, since he obtained it towards the end of the Grail quest [33], in section XVII: XVII, its presence proves coherent with the plot in Le Morte Darthur. This precise device brings about a memory of Galahad that reflects negatively upon his father: very much like St George, the Grail knight is defined, by means of this emblem, as a “miles Christianus -a knight of Christ- which would seem to imply a chaste state (and also his status as) Our Lady’s Knight, for the virginal Queen of Heaven would surely require a virginal champion” (Riches 2000: 62) [34]. Thus, the shield remains an indication of Galahad’s deeds and spiritual prowess allowing us to catch a glimpse of Launcelot’s unworthiness and insistence on sin, this being a recurrent topic along Malory’s account of the Grail quest, which specifies that Launcelot’s glorious profile is actually bound to earthly matters and mere appearance. For this reason, the knight’s red garments prove particularly revealing in respect to untamed passion [35], as opposed to the chromatic axis in Guenevere’s habit, joining the notions of ‘quest for purity’ and ‘rejection of earthly vanity’.

Given the various contents expounded along our analysis, we may conclude that Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) does not merely function as a visual translation of scene XXI: IX in Caxton’s text: Rossetti adopts as a basis the lovers’ failed meeting in order to build up a painful routine of interaction between past and present that runs consonant with the crepuscular ambience closing up Malory’s volume. The tomb of the king functions as an identifying referent -as reflected in the watercolour’s title- and an essential nexus in terms of content and structure: therefore, the visual work stands a powerful reflection upon Camelot’s splendour and decadence. At a political level, the main reason for failure remains the prevalence of individual interests over subjection to a given hierarchy whose king and knights stand as the guarantors of order, justice and unity for the whole community. The glorious past of the Arthurian court remains as an ideal which, nevertheless, cannot hide the flaws in human nature: once the dream is over and characters notice the instability and transience of earthly matters, their gazes turn to the realm of the spirit. It is in this sense that Guenevere’s rejection, very much like Galahad’s attainment of the Grail, describes a restorative movement stressing Launcelot’s guilt and solitude. In our view, Rossetti does not point at the knight’s change of mind by the end of Le Morte Darthur (1485) in order to stress the new state of awareness following the court’s collapse: once a previous era passes away, it is time to search for a certain existential security within a new period which may not be free of further difficulties. But, as we said at the beginning of our article, the dialogue between ‘past’ and ‘present’ may prove useful to enhance our experiential skills and self-improvement routines.

In artistic terms, these contents lead us to consider that Rossetti could have conceived Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) partly as a personal reflection regarding the disintegration of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the new aesthetic and ideological path that he was about to take. It is beyond question that his contact with Morris and Burne-Jones led to the enhancement of his medievalist vision; but we understand this step in terms of ‘mutual enrichment’ rather than ‘unidirectional influence’, especially regarding Malorian content. Taking into account Rossetti’s interests between the late 1830s and early 1850s, we may perceive that his Arthurian inspiration ran parallel to his readings of youth and early gothic, chivalric and Dantean renderings, even though it was fully externalized later on. We may assume that his knowledge of Le Morte Darthur before 1856 might not have been complete: in fact, most of the contents in his first Arthurian subject remain mostly from book XXI while some others belong to the description of the Grail Quest (books XIII-XVII), possibly derived from the influence of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, as their joint works suggest. However, the arrangement and treatment of contents in the watercolour, together with the allusions to the Trojan War, Tristam and Iseult or the Genesis myth, suggests a thorough process of reflection and assimilation which does not usually derive from shallow or superficial approaches. Accordingly, Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) remains not only a stylistic turning point within Rossetti’s career but also an initial contact with some of the main topics and motifs which would appear again in subsequent Arthurian works between 1857 and 1864.

 

Notes

[1] We may mention the style of the German Nazarenes (Franz Pforr, Friedrich Overbeck, Peter Cornelius, etc) as a definite influence to that of the Pre-Raphaelites, mainly through Ford Madox Brown. Besides, we should not forget that they also drew their inspiration from the visionary painter-poet William Blake and Romantic authors such as John Keats and Percy B. Shelley. These may serve as a brief collection of samples pointing at the fact that the spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism was not so restricted in terms of its aesthetic bases as some critical accounts often point out. In fact, the movement would undergo a definite series of changes along the second half of the nineteenth century and the early 20th century.

[2] It may be objected, though, that Rossetti’s tendency towards ‘introspective escapism’, together with his idea of ‘contact with the transcendent’ already entailed a sharp contrast with some of the foundational tenets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, such as their faithful representation of nature. (See Lambourne 1999: 231-232)

[3] Rossetti’s chalice bearer is not exactly the same female we find in traditional accounts of the Grail Quest: within his vision, she did not only receive the mediating qualities of his mystical damsel, but was even granted the rank held by Joseph of Arimathea in section XVII: XXII from Malory’s Le Morte Darthur as a herald from heaven. The following quote, as the basis for his watercolour on the attainment of the Grail (1864), shows how, by means of this change, Rossetti also introduced a notion of inter-generic unity through identity between Galahad and the Grail maiden -on the basis of their virginity and spiritual prowess:

      Therewith, the good man took our Lord’s body betwixt his hands, and proffered it to Galahad, and he received it gladly and meekly. Now, wotest thou what I am? said the good man. Nay, said Sir Galahad. -I am Joseph of Armathie, which our Lord hath sent here to thee to bear thee fellowship. And wotest thou wherefore that he hath sent me more than any other? For thou hast resembled me in two things, in that thou hast seen the marvels of the Sancgreal, and in that thou hast been a clean maiden, as I have been and am. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 410)

[4] See Eco 2004 (2002): 330.

[5] The group also included Arthur Hughes, Valentine Prinsep, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and John Hungerford Pollen. (See MacCarthy 1994: 130-1).

[6] In October 1836, at the age of eight, Rossetti had drawn a coloured design of two young men fighting high above on a castle rampart. The subject was taken from Monk Lewis’ The Castle Spectre. Rossetti’s earlier extant works, dated about 1840, were a poem entitled Sir Hugh the Heron and a rough sketch called A Fight for a Woman. In the poem, Sir Hugh, whom Rossetti found in Scott’s Marmion, is depicted as a gallantly robust knight who has never been defeated in combat […] The sketch […] forms a close parallel to the poem in that the subject is that of two men fighting for a woman in a medieval setting. (Yamaguchi 1996: 88)

[7] Originally painted in 1857, The Death of Breuse sans Pitié was ‘reworked’ -almost fully repainted- in 1865.

[8] In Marmion , Scott had paraphrased two lengthy passages from Malory, ‘Launcelot and the Chapel Perilous’ and ‘Launcelot’s Vision of the Holy Grail.’ He then announced a plan for a publication of Le Morte Darthur […] Robert Southey then began preparing a manuscript for Longmans but caused repeated delays, and by 1809 Southey passed the project on to Scott (who) by this time was too occupied by his own lucrative work, and the plans for republication were temporarily abandoned. (Mancoff 1990: 24)

[9] A manifesto affirming belief only in man’s own genius or heroism […] Avoiding outright blasphemy, the list began with Christ, who was awarded four stars, as leading ‘Immortal’. Positivist in approach, it also included Isaiah and the author of Job […] King Alfred, Columbus, Cromwell […] George Washington, Joan of Arc […] Of the remaining forty names, half are drawn from literature, including Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth […] Tennyson and both Brownings. (Marsh 1999: 43-44)

[10] Even though the safest option, for reasons of ‘temporal closeness’, would be to assert that Rossetti read the 1842 edition of Tennyson’s Poems, we must point out that a certain detail in his visual rendition of The Lady of Shalott for the Moxon Tennyson (1854) suggests even earlier contact with the laureate’s writings: Rossetti shows a group of swans trailing behind the maiden’s funereal barge; these animals were not found anywhere in the revised edition of the poem, but in the original version dating back from 1832, more precisely in lines 136-141, depicting the lady as she approaches the Arthurian court: “As when to sailors while they roam / By creeks and outfalls far from home / Rising and dropping with the foam / From dying swans with warblings come / Blown shoreward; so to Camelot”. The revised version alludes to the sounds of the night and the lady’s last song, but makes no reference to the swans in Rossetti’s drawings. In our view, it is too precise a reference as to be ascribed to mere chance or personal invention.

[11] (Tennyson’s volumes from 1830 and 1832) were attacked as “obscure” or “affected” by some of the reviewers. Tennyson suffered acutely under hostile criticism, but he also profited from it. His volume of 1842 demonstrated a remarkable advance in taste and technical excellence, and in 1850 he at last attained fame and full critical recognition with In Memoriam. (Abrams & Greenblatt (eds.) 2000: 1199)

[12] William (Michael) Rossetti recorded in 1849 that Tennyson’s “poem of King Arthur is not yet commenced, tho’ he has been for the past years maturing the conception of it; and he intends that it should occupy him some fifteen years.” (December 18, 1849. P. R. B. Journal). The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers found a wealth of genuine ideas in the poetry of Tennyson. (Mancoff 1990: 142)

[13] At the Brownings’, Gabriel on two successive evenings met Tennyson, who was spending a few days in town. They had not met, apparently, since Patmore had introduced them in the early days of the Brotherhood. […] On this second occasion Tennyson read Maud “through from end to end” as Mrs. Browning, with a significant particularity of emphasis, informed her sister. Browning, not to be outdone, had followed with his own Fra Lippo Lippi. William Rossetti and one or two other persons were also present. […] Rossetti found Tennyson “quite as glorious in his way as Browning, and perhaps of the two even more impressive on the whole personally.” Mrs. Browning he admired for her gracious, self-sacrificing hospitality, and thought “delightfully unliterary.” (Doughty 1960 (1949): 183-184)

[14] We must not forget, though, that Malory’s work was a late-medieval retelling of previous sources such as the Huth Merlin, the Alliterative Morte Arthur, the Vulgate Lancelot , the Prose Tristam and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, among others. (See Loomis 2000 (1963): 170-171)

[15] See Simpson 1990: 253.

[16] I mean to suggest a symbolic equivalence between Guinevere and the Round Table -she has a profound and ambivalent role in the fellowship which holds the knightly order together. The warning about her adultery (made by Merlin) is something Malory has added, with the effect of putting the entire marriage, from its inception, under suspicion […] Guinevere, like the Round Table that was her marriage portion, holds the knights at court and is culpable if she drives them away. Guinevere’s role is not to uphold the court, but to uphold the ‘homosocial’ bonds between men who uphold the court. (Archibald & Edwards (eds.) 2000 (1996): 45)

[17] The knightly deeds and high purpose of the Round Table are abandoned: personal feelings take precedence over fellowship and loyalty. Chivalry gives way to civil war in the closing pages of Le Morte Darthur, and Arthur’s lament over the lost ideals for which he has striven once again puts love at a lower level. (Barber 1996: 34)

[18] In November (1853), Millais had been duly elected an Associate of the R. A. (Royal Academy), the first step towards full membership. ‘So now the Round Table is dissolved,’ wrote Gabriel to Christina (Rossetti), quoting Tennyson. In response, she memorialised the once-great Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood […]: The P. R. B. is in its decadence / For Woolner in Australia cooks his chops / And Hunt is yearning for the land of Cheops / D. G. Rossetti shuns the vulgar optic / And he at last, the champion, great Millais / Attaining Academic opulence /Winds up his signature with A. R. A […] So rivers merge in the perpetual sea. (Marsh 1999: 113)

[19] Many gentlemen had reproached Caxton for his failure to print the noble story of the Saint Greal and of the most renowned Christian king, Arthur […] Caxton at first excused himself on the ground that divers men held that all books made about Arthur were feigned and fables, but he was finally convinced by such tangible evidences as the tomb of Arthur at Glastonbury (actually the result of a ‘plant’ perpetrated in 1191), the Round Table, which is still to be seen at Winchester, Gawain’s skull and Cradock’s mantle at Dover Castle, which have long since disappeared. (Loomis 2000 (1963): 167)

[20] See Mancoff 1990: chapter 7.

[21] And so they met as their pointment was, and so they were agreed and accorded thoroughly: and wine was fetched and they drank. Right so came an adder out of a little heath bush, and it stung a knight on the foot. And when the knight felt him stungen, he looked down and saw the adder, and then he drew his sword to slay the adder, and thought of none other harm. And when the host on both parties saw that sword drawn, then they blew beames, trumpets and horns, and shouted grimly […] There was but rushing and riding […] many a grim word was there spoken either to other, and many a deadly stroke. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 478)

[22] Initially executed as a glasswork panel (1862-1863), this visual rendition also met a subsequent watercolour version, carried out in 1867.

[23] The solar surrogate has finally succeeded the old King, who is now dead. The colours the Queen wears are obviously the weeds of death, and the white of her wimple edges her nun’s garb like an old crescent moon […] she turns away from him and the cycle has ended. The days of the old Celtic solar cult have passed, and Christianity has taken its place: the Lunar Queen has been absorbed into the new religion and resides in a convent. (Drew 2007: 239)

[24] Likewise, Drew asserts that “obviously, Rossetti knew that Arthur had no tomb” (2007: 238). However, in doing so, he seems to overlook both the artist’s use of this motif in figurative terms and the iconic status of the Glastonbury tomb at the time, a fact especially emphasized in Loomis ( 2003: 119, 122, 149), Barber (2005: 129-30, 213, 227) and Mancoff (1990: 18-19)

[25] Rossetti had already got in contact with the figure of Helen as a destructive icon through Dante’s Inferno, which he had also read. We may consider that the story of Troy was already a powerful icon in Rossetti’s mind for, in subsequent years, he would execute the drawing Cassandra (1860) and the canvas Helen of Troy (1863). We should note, nevertheless, that his rendering of destructive beauty could have been reinforced in Oxford through contact with William Morris, who composed Scenes from the Fall of Troy and drew Iseult Boarding the Ship in 1857 (see Waggoner 2005 (2003): 34) the same year of their Jovial Campaign. In our view, the friendship between these fellow artists contributed to their mutual enrichment on topics which they were previously familiar with. Another documentary source which Rossetti used before 1863 was Lempriere’s classical dictionary, which includes (of course) Paris, Helen and the golden apple motif. But, most importantly, the latter work also includes a reference to a torch, featured in Rossetti’s Helen of Troy (1863) as a symbol allusive to Paris (See Lempriere 1900 (1812): 434). Unfortunately, these later sources cannot be so freely applied to Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) due to temporal distance. We can only be certain that he had already got to know about Helen through Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he read in the 1840s.

[26] Under the light of this contrast and the foresaid opposition between the notions of ‘love’ and ‘sexual attachment’ we deem quite enlightening the influence put forward by Treuherz in respect to “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and -quoting D. R. M. Bentley- the woodcut in the tomb of Adonis in the famous Renaissance book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. (2003: 175).

[27] Although still acknowledging his excellence as a colourist, John Ruskin disliked this Arthurian subject: “he paid 20 guineas (and) claimed he was going to make Rossetti do it again ‘without mistakes’ […] The figures are out of scale and squashed into a low horizontal space, echoing the shape of the tomb in a frankly medieval manner: the inspiration surely comes from the Gothic carvings, illuminated missals and early German woodcuts Ruskin was currently studying, praising, lending […] Ironically, the imperfect watercolours he received from Rossetti were too grotesque, too primitive. Later, Ruskin shuddered at the extreme medievalism his praise of Gothic had stimulated.” (Marsh 1999: 149) We may suggest, nevertheless, that Ruskin’s opinion might have been seasoned by Rossetti’s topic choice, insofar as his own wife, Euphemia Ruskin, formerly encloistered in their unhappy (and unconsummated) marriage, had recently eloped together with John Everett Millais, who had received Ruskin’s critical support during the difficult early years of Pre-Raphaelitism. Maybe the art critic and theorist saw himself uncomfortably reflected in the love triangle appointed by Rossetti’s work. Most interestingly, this reference could be added to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Tennysonian quotes and Christina Rossetti’s poetic answer -already mentioned in our article- in order to support the image of Arthur’s Tomb (1854-1855) partly as a recreation of the decline of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood during the mid-1850s. Our view runs consonant with Mancoff’s, who asserts that Rossetti saw himself as “a P.R.B. Bedivere, forced to carry on the standards of the creed alone” (1990: 146).

[28] According to Cirlot, this link owes to the fact that “the unicorn is at times transmuted into a white dove […] as the representation of the virile, pure and penetrating force of the spiritus mercurialis” (2002 (1971): 357). These contents, bound to Alchemy and Hermetism, were not alien to Rossetti’s milieu, especially due to his father’s interest in esoteric studies. Other works, such as the design The Lady of Shalott (1857) or his watercolour on the attainment of the Grail (1864) allude to symbolic animals such as the swan and the pelican possibly to point at two of the stages within the process of spiritual growth described by alchemic tradition. Similarly, his watercolour The Damsel of the Sanc Grael (1857) represents the maiden almost as a tower, bestowing upon her a concept of progress and transformation also bound to the symbolic atanor. In the 1870s, he composed the poem Joan of Arc (published posthumously as an incomplete set of notes in 1911), which serves a further example of this type through its ‘phoenix metaphor’: the image brings together the figures of Christ and the Maid of Orleans, while also borrowing from the Rosicrucian motto Ignis Natura Renovatur Integram -as an alternative interpretation of the INRI inscription on top of the Holy Cross. These examples allow us to note that Rossetti sometimes incorporated these meanings to his works in order to serve his own artistic and expressive objectives.

[29] Abide me here, and I shall go and fetch a horse. And so she came soon again, and brought a horse with her that was inly black […] And when Sir Percivale came nigh the brim, and saw the water so boisterous, he doubted to overpass it. And then he made a sign of the cross in his forehead. When the fiend felt him so charged, he shook off Sir Percivale, and he went into the water, crying and roaring, making great sorrow; and it seemed unto him that the water burnt. Then Sir Percivale perceived it was a fiend, the which would have brought him unto his perdition. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 368-369)

[30] Then him thought there came an old man afore him, the which said, Ah, Launcelot, of evil faith and poor belief, wherefore is thy will so lightly turned towards thy deadly sin? And when he had said thus he vanished away, and Launcelot wist not where he was become. Then he took his horse and armed him […] So (he) rode into a deep valley, and there he saw a river and a high mountain […] And through the water he must needs pass, the which was hideous; and then in the name of God he took it with good heart. And when he came over he saw an armed knight, horse and man black as any bear: without any word he smote Sir Launcelot’s horse to the earth, and so he passed on: he wist not where he was become. And then he took his helm and his shield, and thanked God of his adventure. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 376-377)

[31] Hence, quoting Archibald, viewers are reminded of the fact that “the ideological structures of love and chivalry which sustain the court are matched by a shadow structure of adultery which, when made explicit and brought into the open, destroys it.” (2000 (1996): 43-44)

[32] Nevertheless, as Ricks states, “for the knight’s appearance, Tennyson took up details from The Faerie Queene.” (1989: 23)

[33] And at the last he came to a white abbey, and there they made him that night great cheer. And on the morn he arose and heard mass, and afore an altar he found a rich tomb which was newly made, and then he took heed, and saw the sides written with letters of gold, which said, Here lieth Bagdemaus of Gore, the which king Arthur’s nephew slew: -and named him Sir Gawaine […] Then he departed, and came to the abbey where Galahad did the adventure of the tombs, and wan the white shield with the red cross, and there had he great cheer all that night. And on the morn he turned unto Camelot, where he found Arthur and his queen. But many of the knights of the Round Table were slain and destroyed. (Strachey (ed.) 1899 (1868): 405)

[34] This seems to indicate a clear comparison between the worship of the Virgin Mary and Lancelot’s infatuation towards Guenevere, based on sexual attraction. However, once the queen gazes back up to heaven and attempts to heal her spiritual side, the knight is left in solitude: his ‘fleshy cult’ losses its ‘goddess’. By establishing a contrast between past and present and a certain comparison between Galahad, Lancelot and Guenevere, Rossetti allows us to perceive that only the knight’s guilt and lechery remain: Guenevere’s former personality and the court which harboured their affair have vanished. In a sense, the artist is interested in showing Lancelot reaping the empty fruits of his earthly labour.

[35] When externalized, red is dangerous as the uncontrolled lust for power, leading to self-absorption, hatred, blind passion and hell-born love. (Chevalier & Gheerbrant 1996 (1969): 795)

 

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© José María Mesa Villar 2009

Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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