This magnificent painting – The Meeting on the Turret Stairs – is a strangely evocative painting inspired by the Danish poem, The Legend of Hellelil and Hildebrand.
This water-colour, which was painted in 1864 by Frederic William Burton, is so delicate it is only exhibited for three hours each week in the National Gallery of Ireland in order to preserve it.
Hellelil was a Danish princess and Hildebrand one of her body-guards. They fell in love – much to the displeasure of her father who ordered his seven sons to kill Hildebrand.
Hildebrand killed six of the boys and spared the seventh at Hellelil’s request. Hildebrand died of his wounds and Hellelil herself died soon afterwards.
But the allure of this painting is nothing to do with the tragedy or the action of the story. Burton chose to imagine and depict this parting of the lovers rather than any feats of battle.
This achingly painful farewell may be anguished and sad but it’s appeal isn’t in its artistry or theme or even in its tragedy – though all of those are present along with the vibrant colours and delicate brushwork.
The reason that so many people are drawn to this painting is that the sum of its parts add up to something much more extraordinary than any of that.
The limp and helpless arm in the passing and stolen embrace. The turned away faces. Closed eyes. The tenderness and longing like a separate character alive in that stairwell…
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs speaks to us almost a hundred and fifty years after it was painted because, in spite of the medieval clothes and setting, it captures something we all long for and – if we’re lucky – experience.
It captures a sense of love.