The Grail Code 

Archive for the 'Art' Category

Studies for “The Last Sleep of Arthur”

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Two of Burne-Jones’ studies for his  “Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” live in Pittsburgh. You can’t see them, or at least not very easily, because the Carnegie Museum of Art has many times the number of pieces it can display. But you can see photographs of them on line. To avoid even the appearance of impropriety (the Carnegie is jealously protective of its images), I won’t embed them, but I will link to them.

This is a study for the disposition of the central figures. By comparing this study with the finished work, you can see that Burne-Jones had already got the main idea, but made numerous changes by the time he was ready to put the figures on canvas.

This is an architectural study of the pavilion at the center of the painting. Again, the main idea is there, but the proportions changed somewhat in the finished work.

The Carnegie has a few other good Burne-Jones works, of which “The King and the Shepherd” and “The Nativity” are on display now and worth a trip to see.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Edward Burne-Jones’ greatest work, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, has been bunging around Europe while its home in Puerto Rico is under restoration. This time Europe is showing some appreciation for old Burne-Jones, and it’s about time.

Toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, artists were beginning to rebel against the insignificance of what they had been taught in their academies. The rebellion ultimately led to abstraction, at first partial and then complete.

Artists have always tended to see paintings in terms of carefully balanced compositions of colors; the things represented in the painting can seem almost incidental. That was especially true in some nineteenth-century academic circles, which produced paintings crowded with realistic reproductions of trivial things.

One possible response to the unimportance of the things themselves is simply to get rid of them. If a painting is a carefully balanced composition of colors, then let us have the colors alone, abstracted from any recognizable picture. Perhaps that way we can produce pure art at last.

Another possible response requires more thought and more work. We can make every detail of the painting significant; nothing represented in it will be trivial or irrelevant. This is the answer of Burne-Jones, who created an allegorical world for his figures to live in.

It’s hardly surprising that medieval romances gave Burne-Jones much of his inspiration. He was drawn especially to the romaces of Arthur, with their layers upon layers of allegory. Like Burne-Jones’ paintings, the romances of Walter Map have no irrelevant details, nothing stuck in just for the sake of color.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon took Burne-Jones seventeen years, and even then he died before he had quite finished it. They say he was so obsessed with the work that he slept in the pose he gave Arthur in the painting. The more he worked on it, the more he wanted to be in Avalon, the Avalon he was painting, to rest like Arthur. He was working on the painting the day before he died. One wonders what he thought of death when he finally got there, and whether it lived up to his expectations.

The Failure of Lancelot

Monday, February 16th, 2009
The Failure of Sir Lancelot

Click on the image to enlarge it.

This tapestry—The Failure of Sir Lancelot, by Burne-Jones, Morris. and Dearle—must be glorious in color, but I have it only in black and white from a 1912 book called TapestriesTheir Origin, History, and Renaissance, by George Leland Hunter. The design, at least, is striking. The Holy Grail was one of Edward Burne-Jones’ favorite subjects; here he illustrates Lancelot’s closest approach to it. The Grail Mass is going on inside the chapel, but Lancelot sleeps through it, dimly aware that he is missing something terribly important but unable to stir.

Of course, the failure is only a step on the road to ultimate success. Lancelot dies a holy death, welcomed into heaven, where the feast of the Holy Grail goes on eternally. His failure here awakens his sense of unworthiness, and understanding our own unworthiness—our incapability of achieving the Grail without God’s grace—is the first step in becoming worthy. Our most disappointing failures are usually divine providence hard at work for our benefit.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey