ARThurian: The Death of Arthur

The most surprising thing I found while researching art inspired by Arthurian legends is the lack of artwork actually depicting King Arthur himself.  As is obvious from my previous posts, characters and events surrounding him are wildly popular, but the man of legend is strangely absent from the realm of well-known art.

Is it because he is the most noble character of them all?  It is because artists are afraid they will downplay him if they try to depict his image?  These are my theories as of yet.  Every single other character in the legends is very flawed, scandalous, tragic, mysterious, etc.  Imperfection is easy to portray.  However, the golden persona of King Arthur as a model for the ideal leader may be more effective if his image is not rendered clearly.

The bit of artwork that does portray King Arthur mostly shows his death and burial.  His death and fate are perhaps the most obscure aspect of Arthurian legend, which is saying a lot.  In most legends, Arthur orders Bedivere to throw Excalibur into the lake as he is dying.  Bedivere eventually obeys and a hand emerges from the water and catches the sword.  This supposedly summons the Lady of the Lake, who arrives in a ship.  In some versions she is accompanied by three other queens, one being Morgan le Fay.  In others she is accompanied by eight other queens.  They bear Arthur off the Avalon on their ship.

It is what happens after this that is so very obscure.  Perhaps he died in Avalon, or perhaps his body was buried somewhere else.  Or perhaps his spirit still lives on and waits to be summoned when Britain is in time of great need.  At least, this is the legacy of the legend as applied to British culture and the spirit of the Arthurian saga.

“Bedivere and Dying Arthur” by John Duncan.  This piece depicts Bedivere at the side of the King, presumably after he has cast Excalibur into the lake.  The mysterious ship that will bear Arthur into Avalon is shown approaching.

Bedivere and Dying Arthur

“Le Mort d’Arthur” by James Archer.  In this painting Arthur is most likely dying, as the four queens mourn over him.  It appears he is having a vision about the grail, as is implied by the image of an angel holding a grail in the top right corner.  The figures on the beach are most likely Merlin and Nimue, and the ship is the one that will take Arthur’s body to Avalon.

Le Mort d'Arthur

“The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” by Edward Burne-Jones.  This masterful tapestry is packed with symbolism.  The golden canopy above his head is decorated with images of the quest for the Holy Grail.  The flowers surrounding the scene depict the peacefulness and beauty of Avalon.  Arthur lies with his head in the lap of Morgan le Fay.  It is unclear which of the women are the queens, but there seem to be seven crowned women surrounding him.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon

“King Arthur’s Tomb” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1854).  Although this portrayal of Arthur’s demise is not traditional, since he actually is in a tomb and not in Avalon, this painting is too unique and emotionally charged to pass up.  I love the portrayal of Guinevere in this.  Since Arthur has died, technically Lancelot and Guinevere are free to be together.  Lancelot’s eagerness clearly shows his stance on the matter.  However, Guinevere’s loyalty is very apparent.  She knows that there is a time for morning.  She also knows that Arthur’s memory is just as great as the man himself, if not greater.  Therefore, betraying his memory would be no better than being unfaithful to him in life.  Her restraint and strength are very admirable in this piece.

King Arthur's Tomb

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