ARThurian: The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott, also known as Elaine of Astolat, is one of the most common subjects in Arthurian-inspired artwork.  To understand most interpretations of her, it is important to be familiar with Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”  In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is for an unknown reason imprisoned in a castle on the island of Shalott, adjacent to Camelot.  She is cursed to weave a tapestry and only see the world through a circular mirror that reflects the real world from the window opposite.  She knows there will be consequences if she looks into the real world, but she knows not what the consequence is.  One day she sees Lancelot through the window and she gives in and looks out her window at his real image, immediately falling in love with him.  Her tapestry unravels from the loom and the mirror cracks.  She leaves the tower and lies in a boat with her name carved in the side, floating down the river to Camelot as she dies.  Most likely it is her watery death and inescapable curse that draws people to her situation most strongly.

Her character in more traditional Arthurian legends is much different.  Many versions exist, including her being manipulated by her father, who convinces her to seduce Lancelot and bind her to him, she ends up falling in love with Lancelot.  Another version consists of her falling in love with Lancelot at a joust and asking him to wear her favor.  Most versions agree that she dies of a broken heart when Lancelot rejects her in favor of Guinevere, and her corpse floats to Camelot in a boat.  She is a flawed character, yet realistic and intriguing.  Maybe this is why artists love to interpret her character, appearance, and demise.

The first set of paintings are clearly depicting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, while the rest are most likely referring to Elaine of Astolat, whose fate inspired Tennyson’s character.

The Lady of Shalott

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  The title line of this piece is from Tennyson’s poem.  She can only view the real world through a circular mirror, and so is only experiencing shadows of reality.  She sees young lovers through the mirror and wishes she could take part in that world; this moment is expressing her awakened desire for love.

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by Sidney Meteyard.  This is also the line from Tennyson’s poem, like Waterhouse’s piece.  The circular mirror can be seen casting a dim reflection of the young lovers in the background.  The darker colors of this piece, as well as her pose, suggest a darker, more sensual tone.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Maw Egley.  This is also portraying the moment when she glimpses Lancelot in reality, though the curse has yet to wreak its havoc.  Lancelot can be seen through the mirror on the opposite side of the room, and Camelot is visible through the widow at the back.

“The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot” by John William Waterhouse.  This is depicting the moment when she gives in and looks at Lancelot through the window.  We already see the curse is unfolding, as the mirror behind her cracks and the threads from the tapestry entangle her.  Lancelot’s armored head can be seen in the mirror.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt.  This is also the moment of the curse bearing down upon her, with the cracked mirror, entangling threads, and her hair blowing wildly in some unearthly wind.  Lancelot is also visible through this mirror.  This piece is heavy in symbolism, from the numerous random objects scattered across the floor to the frescoes on the wall.

“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  This is probably the most well-known paintings of the Lady of Shalott, and is perhaps the only one to depict her still alive in her death boat.  This particular piece is also interesting because the woman pictured looks completely different from the other two paintings in which Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott.  She takes with her the tapestry she has been weaving in her tower for who knows how long, and her name is carved in the prow.  The raw emotion in her face is also evident; the viewer can clearly see the anguish and heartbreak she is experiencing.

“The Lady of Shalott” by Arthur Hughes.  This piece displays the reaction of peasant women, presumably collecting herbs by the river, to the tragic corpse of the lady.  Her paleness, along with her white gown, make her stand out and compare her to the graceful swan swimming alongside her.

“Lady of Shalott” by G. E. Robertson.  This painting depicts the moment her boat reaches Camelot.  The man leaning over her is most likely Lancelot, for he was the first to see her when she reaches Camelot and remarks that she had a lovely face.  In this piece, the Lady of Shalott is also lying on her woven tapestry and is displayed magnificently and tragically in her boat.

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Elaine of Astolat

“Elaine, or the Lily Maid of Astolat” by Sophie Anderson.  Most images of Elaine focus directly on her death and not on her predicament with Lancelot.  The bargeman is also a common figure in Elaine’s death and is portrayed mourning in this piece.  Elaine’s paleness is perhaps the most striking component, emphasizing both her fairness and her death.

“Elaine Floats Down to Camelot” by Briton Riviere.  This piece is much more peaceful, with a hint of a smile on Elaine’s porcelain-like face, as if she finally found peace and relief to her anguish through death.  The sunrise or sunset also suggests hope or a new beginning.  The bargeman’s contemplative pose also adds to the tone.

“Elaine” by Pollie Clarke.  This is a very romantic depiction of Elaine, adorned with lilles and arriving at the lush river bank.  The knight surveying her is most likely Lancelot.

“Elaine” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.  This piece is very somber and even spooky.  The red light makes the water look red, like blood, and hints at violence and/or chaos.  This contrasts to Elaine’s peaceful expression and white gown, implying she was the victim of a corrupt world.

ARThurian: Intro

Forgive the pun.  I couldn’t help myself.

Anyways, I have decided to use artistic interpretations to illustrate the many themes, characters, and events of Arthurian legends.

The topic Arthurian art is so expansive I have a hard time knowing where to start.  Really there are three main components:  Medieval art, which would consist of illuminations of the manuscripts that first developed Arthurian legends; the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which abounded in paintings of Camelot; and illustrations of more modern retellings of King Arthur’s story.  The Medieval illuminations are much harder to find, especially on the internet, as they are contained in very old, very valuable manuscripts inaccessible to the average person.  However, more modern interpretations of Arthurian legends come in copious amounts.

The Pre-Raphaelites are my personal favorites.  They literally dominate the scope of Arthurian-inspired art.  This was an art movement in the 19th century that sought to return to the classical style and content of art, especially like the Italian artists preceding Raphael.  Their inspiration was mainly derived from mythology, the Bible, and the Middle Ages.  Naturally, Arthurian legends were large components of this.

In the next few posts I will separate pieces by subject matter so it is easier to compare styles and interpretations of different characters and events in the legends.  Most paintings I will show are from the 19th century and early 20th century, as this is when the Arthurian revival was at its strongest.  They will also be mostly stand-alone, as in not commissioned to illustrate a book of Arthurian legends.  This allows the artist more freedom, and therefore opens up a wider variety of interpretations.

The Historic Arthur

The greatest thing about Arthuriana is the mystery it is cloaked in.  The line between history and legend is fuzzy and at times incomprehensible.  Set right in the heart of the Dark Ages, after Roman occupation and before the Medieval influx of record keepers and historians, very little is known about the Britain Arthur would have ruled in, and even less is known about the man himself.  Did such a man actually exist?  Or was he a symbol of many great rulers of the time?  I have found a wide variety of opinions and arguments of this subject from different historians, so here is what I have comprehensively gathered.

From Nennius’ 8th century Historia Brittonum

Although the culture and setting of the legendary Arthur is usually associated with the Middle Ages (thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory), it is generally agreed upon that the historical Arthur most likely existed in the late 5th century or early 6th.  However, he does not actually appear in historical manuscripts until 400 years later.  The two accepted records written closer to his time, in the 6th and 8th centuries, do not mention a leader by the name of Arthur, but do mention a strong war-leader who united British leaders against Saxon invasions which allowed fifty years of peace.  Of course, that cannot entirely rule him out of existence since so many documents from that time have been lost and so few are still remaining.

Monmouth’s interpretation of a 5th century King Arthur

The earliest mention of an “Arthur” is in Nennius’ 8th century Historia Brittonum, in which he defeats the Saxons in twelve different battles.  Each battle is given a site, all of which have historic parallels, and the last one being on Badon Hill.  This is also the legendary battle in which Arthur defeats the Saxons once and for all and brings Britain into a time of peace.  Thus, we see how the history affects the legends, whether or not that history is accurate.

The first comprehensive development of Arthur as a powerful king of early Britain is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain.  Monmouth’s chronicle provides the bridge between the vague historical figure and the legendary King Arthur.

Many believe, and I agree with this idea, that King Arthur is based on more than one historical figure.  Lucius Artorius Castus was a 2nd century Roman officer who was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall (now in modern-day Scotland).  This name could have been carried over to other 5th century British leaders.  Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Aurelius Ambrosius, was a powerful 5th century king in West Britain.  His parents are referred to as noble, mostly likely Roman royalty.  He was feared by the ruler Vortigern and fought Saxons, and is commonly known to have been a king over all other Briton kings.  In legend, Ambrosius overthrows Vortigern, is the son of Constantine, and the brother of Uther Pendragon, which would make him Arthur’s uncle.  However, it is very possible that he is the basis for Arthur himself.  There is also a British king mentioned in 5th century texts from the mainland (modern-day France), referred to as “Riothamus.”  This name means “supreme king,” or “king above all,” and is possibly referring to Ambrosius.  He was thought to be an impartial, honorable, compassionate ruler.  Mainland manuscripts report him as sailing across the channel to help the emperor Anthemius fight the Gauls.

A helmet that would have been worn by a 5th century Briton war-leader or high ranking officer

The root of Arthur’s name also gives clues as to his origin.  “Arth” is the Brythonic name for “bear,” while “ursus” is the Latin translation.  During the 5th century, names were often composed of both Brythonic and Latin roots, so his name could have easily been “Arthursus”, shortened to “Arthur.”  Many believe this could refer to any powerful king of the time who was nicknamed “the Bear King.”  This opens many new possibilities to interpretations of a historical Arthur.

So who was Arthur, really?  He could have been the Roman Artorius, misplaced in the 5th century.  He could have been Ambrosius, but named after the earlier Artorius.  He could have been any powerful king in the 5th or 6th centuries that was nicknamed “the bear.”  He could have merely been fabricated by a few creative historians.  I doubt the world shall ever know.

And yet that is the beauty of it all.  The mystery, the speculation, the possibility.  That is what has allowed Arthurian legends to become timeless, intriguing, and so incredibly influential.  As long as humanity doesn’t know for certain that Arthur never existed, he could have existed, and therefore, he did.