Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton

Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs 1864 (crop). Watercolour and gouache on paper.

Words Edel Cassidy

The subject is taken from a medieval Danish ballad translated by Burton’s friend Whitley Stokes in 1855, which tells the story of Hellelil, who fell in love with her personal guard Hildebrand. Her father disapproved of the relationship and ordered her seven brothers to kill Hildebrand who, when attacked, kills six of them. Hellelil intervenes to save her youngest brother, who then imprisons her, tortures her and sells her into slavery, and Hildebrand dies of his wounds.

The painting depicts a moment when the couple meet fleetingly on the stairs, as Hildebrand passionately seizes Hellelil’s arm and embraces it. In the words of George Eliot, ‘The face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament.’

Burton’s watercolour reflects the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites in its rich colour and romanticism. Hellelil’s deep blue dress colour and slightly curved torso are clearly reminiscent of Millais’ Mariana (1851).

Whitley Stokes’ sister, Margaret, bequeathed the painting to the National Gallery Ireland in 1900. It was voted by the Irish public as Ireland’s favourite painting in 2012.

Frederic William Burton's Meeting on the Stairs
Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs 1864. Watercolour and gouache on paper.
  • ‘Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton’ is published in Anthology Volume 15. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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