Whenever I return to Dublin, I look for the new, but I love to head back to the familiar as well. My dearest pilgrimage is to the National Gallery of Art to admire The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), the painting voted “best loved” in Ireland. Everything about the painting calls out, “This is love – quiet, tender, and fleeting.” Great works of art tell a story, but the best works of art allow the stories to be imagined by the beholder, as this does. Based on a Danish ballad and set in a medieval tower, the famous Irish painter Frederic William Burton (1816 – 1900) meticulously captures a momentary encounter between the knight Hildabrand and his beloved Hellalyle. The brilliant red and blue of the fabric, the mesh of the armor, and the gilded frame in which it was to remain always, all enhance the romance of the scene. But it’s the downcast eyes, the intense embrace of the arm, the scattered petals on the stairs that tell the story. In the words of George Eliot, “The face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament.” Wow, fantastic stuff! We know that their ill fated love will never be, but we are allowed to imagine for ourselves the story of why not. And isn’t it more fun that way?
Amazingly, Burton used watercolors on paper, so the painting is extremely delicate and needs to be kept inside its own airtight cabinet only to be opened for two hours a week – on Mondays and Wednesdays between 11:30 and 12:30. This past June I got my timed ticket at the front desk, walked past the sunlit cafe, and up the stairs to the roped entryway to the room where the painting lives. I stood with several other people to view the painting in complete quiet, all of us transfixed by its conviction and depth of feeling. As I left the room, the security guard asked me, “Did you enjoy it? It’s very tragic, isn’t it?” And I said, “I loved it – it’s so beautiful.”
And as I walked away, I started to think of other tragic lovers – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Rhett and Scarlet, Dr. Zhivago and Lara, Cathy and Heathcliff – and that life is made up of a series of brief encounters – and that everything is delicate, everything fades – and that a whole bunch of women would still like a knight in shining armor to worship them. (Or as the magnet on my fridge says, “I don’t want to work any more. I just want to be cherished, put on a pedestal, and taken care of. That’s all.”)
And I think of what Frederic William Butler once said, “My best joys have been connected with Ireland.” Me too, Sir Frederic, me too.