Mythology on Canvas (Part 6)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones was a well known pre-Raphaelite painter from England. I will feature a number of examples of his work. The painting I have chosen for this week is The Beguiling of Merlin from 1874.  As is the case with many paintings of stories from mythology,  the full impact comes from knowing the back story (i.e. that which is understood but is not shown).

There are various versions of this account taken from Arthurian legend. Without going into too much detail, the Lady of the Lake, Nimue, captivates Merlin’s fancy and persuades him to teach her his secrets of magic. Once she knows enough, she entraps him in the trunk of a tree while reading aloud from his book of spells.

The painting depicts that stage at which the tree is in the process of closing around Merlin, who is either unable or unwilling to resist his infatuation with the Lady. Merlin, whom we often think of as possessing a white beard, is shown with a clean shaven face of intrigued and perhaps suspicious expression. The tall, striking woman looking down at him while holding an open book away from him serves as the centerpiece of the composition. And, of course, an informed viewer who knows what is in progress might feel a sense of dread.

2 thoughts on “Mythology on Canvas (Part 6)”

  1. I’ve always been a Burne-Jones fan, and this painting has always intrigued me the most. I think what I find so haunting is Merlins facial expression. Even if you are unaware of the backstory, you can just feel that something bad is happening here. Beautiful but awful.

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