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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ARThurian: The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake is perhaps one of the most mysterious and ambiguous characters in Arthurian folklore.  Although she is commonly accepted as being the leader or ruler of Avalon, her character has been attributed with other actions as well.  Some of these include giving Arthur the sword Excalibur from the lake, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after his father died.  She is most frequently called Nimue, Vivien, and Niniane.

The story of her beguiling Merlin is most often attributed to the name Nimue.  While she is a student of Merlin, he becomes enamored of her and falls under her spell, both figuratively and literally.  She convinces him to teach her his magical secrets, withholding her love until he does so.  However, she uses the power and magic from these secrets to trap him in a tree trunk or cave, depending on the version.  She is certainly portrayed as an antagonist, as she takes Merlin away from Arthur and the good of Camelot.

The character who gives Excalibur to Arthur is sometimes called Niniane, though often she is simply ambiguously named “The Lady of the Lake.”  She considered a protagonist and benefactor to Arthur, also helping him in other times of need.

The name Vivien most likely originates from Tennyson’s Idylls of a King, in which she is a villain who ensnares Merlin and dislikes Arthur and Camelot.  Tennyson attributes the bestowal of Excalibur and raising of Arthur to a different Lady of the Lake.

Other actions attributed to the Lady of the Lake are being beheaded by Sir Balin, aiding the Nights of the Round Table in their various quests, becoming Arthur’s adviser, marrying Sir Pelleas, reclaiming Excalibur when Sir Bedivere throws it in the lake after Arthur’s death, and being one of the queens who bear Arthur’s body to Avalon.  One thing is certain: she always appears at pivotal moments in many narratives, especially Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, proving her significance to Arthurian legend despite her ambiguity.

“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones.  This piece illustrates the famous beguiling of Merlin.  The usually powerful and lethal wizard is shown to be helpless in his love for Nimue, and possibly also because she cast a spell on him.  Nimue reads from his book of enchantments, gleaning his usually well-kept secrets.  She looks back at him warily, as if to make sure that he is still enraptured, and not about to punish her for her treachery.  The tree in the background is possibly where she entraps him.

The Beguiling of Merlin

“Nimue, Damosel of the Lake” by Frank Cowper.  This painting is a bit curious, at it doesn’t seem to draw on Nimue’s role in legend.  Perhaps Cowper’s goal was to simply portray her character and traits apart from her actions.  He depicts her as being vain, gentle, and beautiful.

Nimue Damosel of the Lake

“Vivien” by Frederick Sandys.  This piece illustrates Tennyson’s diabolical Vivien.  Her beauty, extravagance, and self-confidence are highlighted, traits that may have allowed her to ensnare Merlin.  The apple in front of her might be a reference to Eve, implying her betrayal and disobedience.

Vivien