Although this curious late-15th-century manuscript painting is reminiscent of the images in witchcraft treatises and demonology books, it actually is an artwork that tells the origin story of a famous legendary figure from Britain. The setting for the image can be ascertained from the book in which it was found; it comes from a text about King Arthur’s knight, Lancelot, and therefore the origin story depicted in this painting also comes from the universe of the legendary Arthurian tales. Yet, this image has little to do with Lancelot. Due to the highly otherworldly elements in the painting featured above, it may not be surprising to learn that the origin story being shown here involves perhaps the most supernaturally-aligned of King Arthur’s many companions—Merlin.
By the time that the 15th-century artist painted the scene above, the story he was re-creating had already been around for centuries. It was a story that had been written down by the monk, Nennius (c. 9th century), and later retold and fleshed out by the peculiar writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in 1136. According to these two early authors, a 5th-century Briton king known as Vortigern (the man attributed with inviting the Saxons to invade England) had his agents search Britain for a child who was born without a human father. Vortigern’s agents indeed discovered one such child—called Ambrose by Nennius, and Ambrosius Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
As the story goes, Merlin’s mother was a nun, who became pregnant after several visitations from a spiritual creature. This otherworldly parentage was said to have been the source of Merlin’s legendary abilities, and even his blood, in itself, was supposed to have inherent power for those who could obtain it. Young Merlin and his cloistered mother were invited to the court of Vortigern, where the nun told the story of her miraculous son’s birth. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an account of the origin story:
“I [Merlin’s mother] know only this: that when I was in our private apartment with my sister nuns, some one used to come to me in the form of a most handsome young man. He would often hold me tightly in his arms and kiss me. When he had been some little time with me he would disappear, so that I could no longer see him. Many times, too, when I was sitting alone, he would talk with me, without becoming visible; and when he came to see me in this way he would often make love with me, as a man would do, and in that way he made me pregnant” (History of the Kings of Britain, VI.18).
Such is the scene that the painting re-creates. It shows Merlin’s mother being visited by her supernatural suitor, a union that would bring about King Arthur’s mysterious advisor. Unfortunately for the nun depicted above, the painter opted for a more demonic form for the spirit, instead of deferring to Geoffrey’s description of the creature taking the shape of “a most handsome young man.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.
- History of the Britons by Nennius, translated by J. A. Giles (c. 19th century), republished by Oxford University Press, 2018.