‘Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

sir-galahad

‘Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Accession number: 1892P4

Date: 1857-9

Rossetti’s watercolour of Sir Galahad is in a naïve style, with the construction and jewel-like colours of other Pre-Raphaelite works. It was inspired by Tennyson’s poem ‘Sir Galahad’, which draws on Arthurian myth to explore the quest of Sir Galahad of the Round Table, searching for the Holy Grail. Galahad is the son of Lancelot, and is one of three knights destined to see the Grail, the mythical holy cup of Christ brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. Writers of Arthurian myth, including Malory – from whom Tennyson gains his inspiration – describe the agony of Galahad who searches for the Grail knowing that he may not be pure enough to be permitted to see it. Tennyson’s poem makes it clear that Galahad is sufficiently pure, however:

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

Unlike other knights, he chooses to ride alone for the most part, and Tennyson’s poem describes his thoughts as he travels and prays; ‘my heart is drawn above’, he says. In Tennyson’s poem, Galahad describes a ‘secret shrine’, which Rossetti depicts as the ruined chapel. In it, he hears voices, and sees lights; this is the place of the Grail, he thinks, but it is his dream:

When down the stormy crescent goes,
A light before me swims,
Between dark stems the forest glows,
I hear a noise of hymns:
Then by some secret shrine I ride;
I hear a voice but none are there;
The stalls are void, the doors are wide,
The tapers burning fair.
Fair gleams the snowy altar-cloth,
The silver vessels sparkle clean,
The shrill bell rings, the censer swings,
And solemn chaunts resound between.

It is this verse which Rossetti seems to be illustrating in this watercolour. The lights, bell, candles and censer are apparent, and Galahad, depicted clearly as a medieval knight, washes his face with holy water. The women at the bottom of the painting are clearly of Rossetti’s imagination (the construction calls to mind many other paintings in which Rossetti divides the canvas, such as The Blessed Damozel). These are, presumably, the angels which bear the Grail which Tennyson mentions in the subsequent stanza, though their clothes are of a different colour:

Three angels bear the holy Grail:
With folded feet, in stoles of white,

The figures may also be the source of the ‘solemn chaunts’ of the poem. Again Rossetti has taken liberties with the text to produce a work of art which is quite his own. Another knight can be seen in the gloom behind Galahad. In Tennyson’s poem, Galahad is alone, but in the myths he is accompanied by Sir Percival when he sees the Grail at last, so it is possible that Rossetti is also indicating the final fulfilment of his quest in this work.