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Hunt: The Lady of Shalott

"She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott (1842)

The painting by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) has a complicated and elaborate symbolism. The Lady of Shalott is herself an artist and may reflect Hunt's own aesthetic on the consequences of turning away from duty and yielding to the temptations of the world rather than being removed from its material realities.

The lady's magnificent hair, blown by a stormy wind, frightens away the doves of peace that had settled next to her as she worked, the weaving ruined, as is her own life. The silver lamp on the right has owls decorating the top and sphinxes at the bottom to suggest wisdom triumphing over mystery, its light extinguished now that the she has succumbed to temptation. Hercules, who is portayed to the right of the mirror is given a halo to signify him as a type of Christ, his victory over the serpent guarding the apples in the garden of the Hesperides the pagan counterpart to Christ's victory over sin. To the left of the mirror, the Virgin Mary prays over the Christ child, her humilty and the valor of Hercules both exemplars of duty and foils to the Lady of Shalott, who personifies its dereliction, as signified by her wild hair and unraveling yarn.

The Lady of Shalott (begun in 1886 and finally exhibited in 1905) is in the Manchester Art Gallery (England).

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