Illustrative art is a beautiful thing. It forms a link between our imagination, and reality, a manifestation of images that otherwise only exist in our thoughts. I find illustrative art particularly fascinating not only because it can bring stories and events in the past, present and future to life, but also because the artist gifts us with their own precious interpretations of ideas, ideologies and even historical figures, illustrating them beautifully. Like other forms of art- literature, photography, music, architecture, theatre and film, the gift of painting and drawing is powerful, captivating, magical. It is a form of speech and expression, and often can make you see things in a different light, challenging your perceptions, perhaps even enlightening you and showering you with new realisations.
Today I thought I might share with you all some of the art inspired by The Canterbury Tales and the Wife of Bath, and images from original manuscripts of the text itself. What I find so special about these paintings is that in reinterpreting The Canterbury Tales, these artists have helped keep the magic of Chaucer’s work alive-even hundreds of years after it was first written, The Canterbury Tales continues to be brought to life before our eyes. Not only does this encourage us to continue to enjoy Chaucer’s brilliant poetry, but also, through beautiful artworks like these, people who might never have heard of The Wife of Bath or even The Canterbury Tales are introduced to Chaucer’s masterpiece, through masterpieces such as these.
The stunning painting above is a Canterbury Tales mural by Ezra Winter. The medieval pilgrimage is masterfully illustrated through the radiant and vibrant colours, the richness of which makes it so lifelike. It is at the same time almost otherworldly in the magnificent detail each individual is painted. I find that the juxtaposition of the more pastel-coloured wilderness behind them, and the bright reds and royal blue’s of the clothing worn by some of the pilgrims makes them stand out in a way that the high-key lighting highlights wonderfully.
Here is another beautiful masterpiece, this one by Paul Hardy. His exquisite illustration of the motion of the pilgrims, the richness of colour here and the deep blue sky seem to transform the journey of the pilgrims from the imaginary animation in our minds to an exceptionally natural illustration of the pilgrimage they were undertaking in The Canterbury Tales. The seemingly summery weather and soft white clouds in the sky are a superb demonstration of the jollity of the pilgrimage, reminding us of the clever comic elements we often find in The Canterbury Tales itself. The lush greenery only adds to the abundance of life in this painting.
This is an illustration of the Wife of Bath’s Tale- the Knight begging the forgiveness of King Arthur’s wife for his crime (raping a maiden, which was punishable by death). The illustration is glorious in itself, but its messages make it all the more special. The Queen sitting on a chair above a platform, juxtaposed with the knight on his knees, powerfully demonstrates his submission in the Tale, first to the Queen, who he is judged by “at [her] wille”, and then later to his wife the hag:
“Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie,” quod she, “Sin I may chese and governe as me lest?”
“Ye, certes, wyf” quod he, “I holde it best.”
What I also find wonderful about this illustration is the golden colours in it, on the Queen and her ladies. It seems to highlight the magic in the Tale, but also perhaps could be seen as presenting the innocence of the Queen’s ladies as virtuous and heavenly.
Here we have Anne Anderson’s painting of the Wife of Bath herself. There is a sereneness in this painting that is beautiful. We can see the Wife in her youth, free from the greedy man-eating qualities she has sometimes been illustrated as embodying. The way that she seems to be looking backwards, and her horse’s hung head seems to suggest that she has left something behind, however, giving the painting a sad quality too, adding to its complexity. Here she is dressed partly in the red we are familiar with, but her baby pink skirt gives her a feminine touch. She is a peaceful Wife, quietly making her way through otherwise empty surroundings. It is an interesting interpretation of the Wife of Bath, mesmeric in its originality and tranquil charm.
It is not only the paintings and illustrations of the Canterbury Tales that are splendid, however, but the actual manuscripts of the text too;
The illustrations in The Canterbury Tales are priceless in their exquisite articulacy. In this article alone, I have probably used the word “beautiful” far too many times to count, but it would not be justice if I called these illustrations anything but beautiful in their splendour, the way they add a vivid richness to the manuscripts. As if Chaucer’s words are not ingeniously melodic in themselves, the beauty of the pages marks The Canterbury Tales out as nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a wonderful lesson for me on the power of art- whether it be literature, photography, architecture, music, theatre, film or illustrations and paintings- of reminding me of the beauty that can be found on earth itself. I do not need to go to space to see it- I can find it right here- past, present, and future.