teenybuffalo (teenybuffalo) wrote,

A maiden knight--to me is given such hope, I know not fear

Today I went to Boston for a job interview. Afterward, I walked to the Boston Public Library to look at the "Achievement of the Holy Grail" murals by Edwin Austin Abbey.  [edited to correct name--I originally typed "Edwin Abbey Church"--WTF, my brain?]  I've posted before about how much I love them, but this was actually the first time in years that I'd revisited the mural room.  I first saw the paintings when I was thirteen, when going to the city was still this huge, exciting effort that required lots of maps and a hotel for the night, instead of something I did every couple of weeks.  After that, they were restoring the room for months, and then I could never get there during open hours, and then I just wrote it off for a long time.  Well, even as a jaded thirty-year-old woman I still love these pictures as I did when I was a wide-eyed kid.  The outer halls and stairwell hold other murals by John Singer Sargent, which do nothing much for me despite my great and dorky love for Sargent.  And then you turn right at the top of the stairs and enter a huge dark room with nothing but a big empty floor, seats around the walls, and a little bit of directional lighting on the paintings.

I love everything about these paintings.  The walls are about twenty feet high.  The bottom half of each wall is paneled in dark oak, and the top half is taken up with murals, starting and ending with Galahad's life.  The style is hyper-detailed in some places, loose enough to be impressionistic in others, and it works remarkably well; it's the effect of re-examining one's own memories, noticing that you cared enough about this guy to note every ring in his mail-shirt, but the guys next to him were just a bunch of lance-poles.  And color--there are masses of bright, deep primary colors, harmonious and exciting, and red and white are everywhere.  Galahad wears a loose red robe at all times.  Sometimes he puts chain-mail over it or vambraces and leggings under it, but he's a young man with a feminine face and golden hair, dressed in a big red garment, kicking ass, being noble, smooching hands, and making the world a better place.  This is the only art I've ever seen that equates bright red with purity.  I remember wanting to be him, when I was a child.  (Well, I do own a giant red fleece bathrobe.  Close enough.)

There's a lovely set of photos of the murals here, by the way.

When Galahad goes to the Grail Castle, the procession passes by him--the Grail, the woman with the severed head, the men with bloody knives and branched candlesticks, and Amfortas wounded and unable to die or be healed.  Galahad looks out at the audience with a WTF? face, like Little Red Riding Hood going "Wait, this isn't my granny..."  The most dramatic images, though, are those where a face or two is deliberately hidden.  Early on, Galahad is invited to sit in the Siege Perilous by a tall figure wrapped in a white silk robe with the cowl thrown over its face.  (It's Joseph of Arimathea traveling incognito.)  Much later on, the Loathly Lady (no relation to the one who hooks up with Gawaine in the ballad) has her hood pulled well down over her face, because she is not proud of her job, and Galahad himself hangs his head to see her; he screwed up his task, and so she's off to wander the world some more, spreading evil wherever she goes.

The angels have swan wings; the Grail is always covered by a cloth through which it glows like an electric light fitting.  Appropriately enough, in the last painting the revealed Grail is a faceted glass globe set into the painting with a light behind it to make it shine deep pink.  There is also, in this panel, a golden tree sculpted in bas-relief and covered in gold leaf, which gives the painting a Byzantine-icon effect.

I saw these murals long before watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time, so I can still gaze upon them with unironic eyes.  And Holy Grail can't help achieving the otherworldly and the sublime, once or twice, no matter how much it plays for laughs.  It's the subject material.  Arthurian legends will occasionally make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck if you spend enough time with them.  There's a moment late in the film when Arthur and Bedivere wind up on a misty shore in the Lake District and get on board a dragon barge, and it sails off with them.  Even the Python guys can't go for a laugh, at that point.  Arthur grasps Bedivere's shoulder and they both look overwhelmed and say nothing.  That scene is the point where Holy Grail overlaps with the Abbey murals.

It's also due to these paintings that I love "Sir Galahad" by Tennyson.  OK, at some points ("My strength is as the strength of ten/ Because my heart is pure") he's Galahad the prig, by way of T.H. White.  On the other hand, he's Galahad the visionary, Lawful Good warrior, ascetic, and wanderer of the world, the hero of these paintings. 

When on my goodly charger borne
Thro' dreaming towns I go,
The cock crows ere the Christmas morn,
The streets are dumb with snow.
The tempest crackles on the leads,
And, ringing, springs from brand and mail;
But o'er the dark a glory spreads,
And gilds the driving hail.
I leave the plain, I climb the height;
No branchy thicket shelter yields;
But blessed forms in whistling storms
Fly o'er waste fens and windy fields.
Tags: art, knights, poems, poetry, recs, writers: arthur lord tennyson
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