The Damsel of the Sanct Grael

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1857
Sources of the Work:
Literary Source: Malory, Morte D'Arthur, Book XI.


◦ Poulson, Quest for the Grail, 84, 86-87.

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 232-233

◦ Stephens,Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 43-45.

◦ Whitaker, The Legends of King Arthur in Art, 189, 239, 242.

◦ Mancoff, The Arthurian Revival in Victorian Art, 196.

◦ Upstone, The Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 91.

◦ Casteras, English Pre-Raphaelitism, 181-182.

Scholarly Commentary


During the 1850's and early 1860's DGR and his circle were deeply interested in Aurthurian subject matter. In the late 1850's DGR painted scenes from Malory's Morte D'Arthur in fresco in the Oxford Union Debating Society hall, and completed three Arthurian illustrations for the Moxon edition of Tennyson. In 1856 William Morris commissioned DGR to paint The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, along with The Blue Closet and The Tune of Seven Towers. Morris used the latter two as titles for poems in his Defense of Guenevere, though neither painter nor poet considered the watercolors to be illustrations of the poems.

A second version of the Damsel of the Sanct Grael was executed in oil for George Rae in 1874. It differs from the original watercolor, and depicts a half-length damsel enveloped in leaves. The model for the 1857 watercolor is widely considered by scholars to be Elizabeth Siddal, who served as the model for the grail damsel in several contemporary pictures by DGR, including Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Receiving the Sanc Grael, an unexecuted 1857 study for the Oxford Union murals. Alexa Wilding was the model for the 1874 oil version.

This watercolor possesses the clarity of composition and bold simplicity of color characteristic of DGR's early medieval watercolors, but can also be viewed as an early example of the remoteness and mysticism found in his later female portraits and personifications.


In this version of the subject, the grail maiden holds the Eucharistic devices in her left hand: the golden chalice brimming with blood and a basket of bread over which a folded white cloth is draped. Her right hand is raised in a gesture of benediction. Over her head hovers the white dove of the Holy Spirit with outstretched wings and bearing a smoke-emiting censer in its mouth. The dove and the maiden's head are framed by the circle of a pale golden halo. In the later oil version the maiden holds the grail in her right hand and makes the sign of blessing with her left.


DGR's Damsel of the Sanct Grael was inspired by Malory's Morte d'Arthur, where she is mentioned three times in Book XI. Malory describes her as “passynge fayre and yonge” (XI, ii), and as “[dressed] alle in whyte.” In the watercolor she is dressed in green, however. DGR takes the minor Arthurian figure of the grail maiden and creates for her what was afterwards a pervasive and influential conception of her visual form. As a prototype, DGR may have relied on an 1855 watercolor by himself and Elizabeth Siddal depicting The Quest of the Holy Grail, in which two somber and slender Siddalesque grail angels appear. The picture also recalls the small Study of a Young Girl that DGR made in 1848.


The figure of the damsel in the first of the two pictures recalls the figura mistica painted by the artist Chiaro dell' Erma in DGR's imaginative manifesto Hand and Soul. Chiaro's dream maiden is dressed in green.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s91.raw.xml