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. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/possibly-by-bacchiacca-marcus-curtius, 22 September 2015.

(Description taken from “The Poems of Michael Field” –  https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/mettus-curtius)

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.

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