Saturday, 14 May 2011

Endless Knight

I have this theory about images of knights in art.  Every time I see a man in armour I think ‘OK, who’s dead?’  This may well be a little unfair of me to generalise, but I can’t help it and I shall explain why.

It all began with Sir Isumbras and the Ford.  Although not one of Millais' best efforts, I don’t mind the picture, and certain aspects of it are sublime.
Sir Isumbras and the Ford (1857) J E Millais
I especially like the way the light plays across the armour, golden and shining, looking almost like folded wings, as he transports the children across the water on his giant horse.  Yes, the horse is insanely large, but if you follow my theory, I will try and excuse that.

I know it comes from a story, but the very ‘St Christopher’ overtones begin to ring bells in my head.  Let’s be honest, any time crossing of water takes place, who doesn’t immediately think of the river Styx and death?  Although Sir Isumbras isn’t in a boat, that is an abnormally large horse he’s on.  You could say that Millais just made a mistake in his perspective, but this is Millais we are talking about, the man didn’t make mistakes without reasoning behind it.

If I was feeling cute I’d say that he was hinting at this interpretation with the bundle of sticks (Styx, get it?) behind the child’s back, but looking further, what exactly are those two nuns up to?  Reminds me of two other nuns in a Millais picture...

The Vale of Rest (1858-9) J E Millais
Who doesn’t love a grave-digging nun? It could be argued that they are a visual cue between the works, that he had the later work in mind when he produced Sir Isumbras.  The two nuns strolling along the river bank are off to dig the graves of the children who are being transported over to the other world by the holy knight.  Yes, it’s a bit of a jump, but what if knights symbolise death in paintings?  What if a knight was used as shorthand for dying, either covertly or overtly?  Take the following examples...

The Three Ravens (1868) Robert Bateman
This is such a beautiful picture.  I remember the first time I saw it, I thought ‘Ahhh, nice trees...hang about, there’s a dead chap!’  Three Ravens ?  How about calling it ‘He’s Dead!’ and it’s not the only example...
The Vale of Rest
The Happy Warrior

Sic Transit
To be honest, these three paintings by G F Watts may as well be titled 'Going', 'Going' and 'Gone'.  In the first painting, we have G F Watts as a knight, looking old and tired.  In the second picture, a knight is embraced by an angel as he dies during battle.  Finally, we have a dead body, but look at the helmet with its spray of peacock feathers.  I believe that the feathered helmet ties the first and last pictures together, drawing a narrative between a knight in search of peace and the end of his journey.  Sir Isumbras also carries peacock feathers.  Symbolism attached to peacocks includes the ability to see off evil spirits and incorruptibility after death, if not actual immortality.  It is true that we tend to view knights in a Christian frame, but the inclusion of peacock feathers could carry the symbolism further.  Maybe the knights could be seen as saints, incorruptible and holy.

We possibly have King Arthur to blame for this.  Imagery surrounding the Knights of the Round Table is filled with Holy Grail, death and immortality, and what is King Arthur if not a man in armour who lives forever?  Remind you of anyone?
It’s not unusual to see an angel, such as St Michael here, in battle dress, ready for a good-against-evil type scrap, not to mention people like Joan of Arc and St George who naturally appear in armour in the imagery that surrounds them. 

Consider for a moment the purpose of a knight:  It is to kill or be killed.  You don’t strap on armour to do a bit of gardening, you wear it for fighting.  The business of a man in armour is death, and I see the role of ‘courier of the dead’ as an extension of this.  Also, look at how old the knights in Sir Isumbras and The Vale of Peace are.  These are not young men, and they do not look particularly warlike any more.  They look tired, especially Watts’ knight, and seem to be marking time before they die.  I would argue that Sir Isumbras has no hope of that, now immortal, like a knight guarding the Grail, but the sort of immortality that comes with very specific service.  The role of a knight who isn’t in battle is to serve a Christian ideal, it seems, to be a ‘Christian soldier’, and by carrying the children over to ‘the other side’, he is fulfilling his role. 

I’m not saying it’s a foolproof argument, but I guarantee you’ll look at knight paintings slightly suspiciously from now on.  My work here is done....
From the poem A Sweet Lullaby (c.1915) Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale


  1. Very interesting! I read somewhere (I think in Pre Raphaelite's in Love?) that Millais repainted the horse much larger than it was originally after someone told him it was too small. But he realized the horse was too large and asked someone to write some lines to accompany the paiting that stressed the size of the Sir Isumbras's horse. I think it was in Pre Raphaelites in Love . . . anyway, I only read it once and don't quite remember where! :)

  2. Ha! Love it. Brazen it out and make it so, Millais!

  3. love it. Had never thought of it before....


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