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Women in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Arthurian Renditions (1854–1867)

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José María Mesa Villar

This scholarly but accessible volume traces the impact of the enduring themes and key women characters from Arthurian tradition in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic corpus. Combining literary and visual analysis, the author opens a double perspective upon the past to emphasize that the painter-poet’s renditions on the legend of Camelot should not be read only as merely illustrative of pre-existing textual sources. Quite on the contrary, his personal take stands out as an eclectic exercise of revaluation providing additional insight into his professional preoccupations and view of the self.
Unfolding in three sections, the book first focuses on the tragic love triangles in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and so on Rossetti’s portrayal of Guinevere and La Belle Yseult. Next, it considers the value of female mediating presences and inter-gender unity in the Grail Quest. The third set of chapters addresses Rossetti’s view of chivalric paternalism and romantic rescue. For reasons of complementation and contrast, this last section also includes an analysis of the painter-poet’s contribution to the stained glass series on the legend of Saint George and the dragon.
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II. Female Mediating Presences Midway between the Earthly and the Divine

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II.Female Mediating Presences Midway between the Earthly and the Divine

II.1The Role of Morgan Le Fay as the Main Priestess of Avalon

Rossetti’s early renderings of Malorian content adopted the recumbent figure of the dead Arthur as the epitome of Camelot’s past glory and sorrowful fall. In line with the views unveiled in I.2, we may assert that this emblematic figure was of prime importance to the artist to make his potential viewers weigh and understand the doubts, fears, sorrows and contradictions assailing the king’s subjects after his passing – that is, in the absence of the whole supportive structure their lord had contributed to build and had attempted to preserve in full force. The painter-poet’s first Arthurian watercolour (1855) granted access to the tomb of the monarch in order to underline the irretrievability of that courtly enterprise. But his move also stressed that its failure did not necessarily invalidate the ideals which had served as its basis. For such reason, his vision of Guinevere in the aforementioned work was that of a woman who resorted to a set of optimal models – those she had formerly perceived in terms of restraint – in order to redress the imbalance of her soul. As an active, expiating gesture of renunciation, she even refused to give a farewell kiss to her beloved Lancelot. Although the shiny days of Logris had faded away, the influence of the king had not fully extinguished: still closely linked to the ideals he had attempted to...

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