By Richard Barber
Last updated 2011-02-17
The grail-bearer, as in the original French romances, is a girl, and the ceremony does not seem to take place in any orthodox religious context. Perceval's sister, who sacrifices herself to cure a leper, is shown lying on the ground, and the symbol of the Holy Ghost, the dove, bears an incense-holder, while angels stand outside the low fence enclosing the place of worship.
The painting shows us the intense religious enthusiasm which focused on the Grail, and the artist is less concerned with precise details than in conveying the atmosphere of the scene in the romances.
In the early 19th century there was great enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, and original medieval texts such as Malory’s 'Le Morte Darthur' were reprinted. There were three editions of Malory in 1816-1817 alone. These were seized on eagerly by a new generation of poets and artists.
Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King' captured the Victorian imagination, and became a kind of national poem. But Tennyson's interest in the Grail was not as great as that of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of artists who consciously harked back to medieval principles.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti chose to depict the Grail when the Pre-Raphaelites were commissioned to decorate the new union building at Oxford University. He also produced watercolours, one of which is shown above, on the same subject.
William Morris, another member of the group, wrote poems on the Grail, and also arranged for the manufacture of Arthurian tapestries to the designs of Edward Burne-Jones, yet another fellow Pre-Raphaelite. Burne-Jones wrote a fine analysis of the Grail stories in his description of the episodes depicted in the tapestries, which shows how sympathetic this group found the Grail.
But Tennyson, as poet laureate, was careful not to stray too far into the religious side of the subject.
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