PAINTED: OLD ART, NEW SKIN – ALPHONSE MUCHA – HERALDIC CHIVALRY
When you think of Alphonse Mucha (Alfons Mucha), you probably think of his advertisements or posters. As a champion of Art Nouveau, it’s sometimes easy to hear the name “Alphonse Mucha” and think you know all there is to know about him. But, there’s actually much more to him than often appears at first blush. Mucha painted a series known as the Slav Epic which depicts the history and mythology of the slavic peoples; he considered it his life’s work. Now, this week’s selection isn’t from the Slav Epic, but it also isn’t the standard Mucha painting.
“Heraldic Chivalry” was selected for compositional investigation because it captures the imagination with an image of the quintessential knight and lady. The image is almost so powerful as to make one feel that “this” is what one might’ve always been thinking of when thinking of knights and ladies. It’s no small thing that the title of the painting is Heraldic Chivalry. But, what is it that makes the painting the concretization of that idea?
For starters, let’s think about knights and ladies. In terms of setting we often think of something medieval and when we think of medieval we think of either castles or an almost-wasteland of dark forests and cloudy skies. Regarding the setting of this picture, Mucha pretty much nailed it with those dark pine forests where almost anything could be lurking. The rather barren-looking dirt road also helps set the mood.
What else do we think of, especially when we think of knights and ladies as a unity? Knights stand up for their ladies. They protect them from danger, and though it may be an ordeal to do so, they do it without complaining. Another quick note — it’s hard to imagine a knight without a horse.
In terms of Mucha’s picture, he puts the knight in front of the lady, not just in terms of putting the knight between the viewer and the lady (as if to say “not too close”), but also the knight slightly leads ahead of her. His dark horse seems to be pressing onward, its head bowed as if in great exhaustion while the lady’s horse seems more at ease with its head held up. The knight, in contrast to his horse, rides erect with his lance running parallel to his posture; comparing knight to lance or lance to knight — both seem ready for anything.
It’s also worth noting that the knight’s posture as well as the lance also appear to be symbolic of the powerful pine trees in the background. Such symbolic parallels can of course be coincidences, but after musing on this image for some minutes… try and imagine a knight and lady in the future, or the concept of chivalry and you may be hard pressed to keep this image out of your mind.
In terms of art composition… when an image manages to concretize an idea so much to the extent that it seems the image could’ve come first, you have a winner in terms of creating something iconic.