In the Middle Ages, an elaborate ceremony surrounded the conferring of knighthood. After certain rites had been performed, the candidate was conducted into his lord’s chapel, where he was told to keep a vigil until sunrise. He was to pass the night by “bestowing himself in visions and prayer.”
This ritual was vividly captured by artist John Pettie in a painting he entitled The Vigil. In it, a young armor-clad knight is seen kneeling before an altar. The light of dawn illuminates the dim aisles of the chapel behind him, but the knight doesn’t seem to notice that his vigil is over.
His weary face is still turned to the altar. His eyes have the look of one who has meditated at length on divine and holy things. His helmet and armor are laid on the steps leading to the altar, but he holds his sword in front of him. Its silhouette is the shape of a cross.
I love this painting for many reasons. Mostly, it is a romantic illustration of history. We all know that the Middle Ages were no picnic. It’s a fairy tale on canvas.