Mettus Curtius and His Countenance

Image: Bacchiacca (?), Marcus Curtius (c.1520). Oil on wood. 25.4 x 19.4 cm. The National Gallery, London, 1860., 22 September 2015.

(Description taken from “The Poems of Michael Field” –

Michael Field, the pseudonym of two women, Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, wrote beautiful, luscious poetry about many works of art, including Marcus Curtius, by an unknown artist (but possibly Bacchiacca). They entitled this poem “Mettus Curtius”, and it offers descriptions of the “lovely Christian knight” (Field 2) featured in the painting. The knight gazes gently down upon his horse and whatever is in front of him, and “poised for thrust his right / Hand grasps a knife” (Field 7-8). He wears a flowing shawl and a knee-length, “azure” (Field 3) dress. Although both the painting and the poem clearly indicate that their subject is a knight, there are many queer undertones. The Michael Fields use words like “sweet”, “effulgence”, “fresh”, and “perfume”, which one might expect to be used to describe a woman. Yet the poets use them to describe this knight, who is dressed in the fashion of a woman; he is not armored or suited for battle like other knights might be, and he rides a “mild, amber horse” (Field 6). Even his “countenance doth keep / Soft as Saint Michael’s” (Field 8-9). The Michael Fields clearly saw the queerness in this painting and brought it to life in their poem. This was also likely a nod to their own queerness. Edith and Katherine were lovers in private, and were friends with people like Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts, and Charles Shannon, who were also likely homosexuals.

The knight in the painting holds a dagger, or a sword, which is short and very pointy, and can be viewed as a phallic symbol. This symbol here represents the opposite of masculinity: it is pointed downward, which seems to imply that masculinity is not present in this scene. Although the Michael Fields write that the dagger is “poised for thrust” (Field 7), the knight does not seem keen on actually penetrating anything with it by the look on his face, as discussed earlier.

3 thoughts on “Mettus Curtius and His Countenance”

  1. I love your close-reading of this poem about the knight. It made me think of other representations of knights – they are often young non-masculine boys. Also reminds me of Joan of Arc, another queer knight from history who has been reclaimed by lesbian and trans masc authors. I also appreciated your last point about the dagger, it was a cool close art reading. Will definitely make me consider other swords in art pieces I see!

  2. I really appreciate your post and the queer undertones that you have pointed out throughout the painting. Specifically, what I found interesting was the sword, (indeed a symbol of sexual manners) presented in the piece. As you have stated, although it does not seem, according to the painting itself, that the man himself is going to use said sword, Michael Fields incorporates this idea. Even though he does not seem that he would thrust his sword, it causes me to wonder, due to the position his hand is in, if he truly is ready to ‘fight’ or in this case/newfound idea, engage in other activities??

  3. I think you were right to point out how queerness is constructed through these texts. From the emasculate knight to the dagger, it seems that these works introduce a new tradition to the images of masculinity. Through the knight’s attire, colorful appearance, and stunted weapon, the knight comes off as less imposing. Yet, the very image of the knight juxtaposes concepts of warrior-ness onto a less imposing image of masculinity. I really enjoyed reading this post!

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