Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1857)
Painting of a grail maiden holding the Eucharistic devices in her left hand. Her right hand is raised. Over her head hovers the white dove of the Holy Spirit. Both have halo of light.


A variant of this description was originally published at The Rossetti Archive.

Scholarly Commentary


During the 1850s and early 1860s, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle were deeply interested in Aurthurian subject matter. In the late 1850’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted scenes from Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur in fresco in the Oxford Union Debating Society hall, and completed three Arthurian illustrations for the Moxon edition of Tennyson. In 1856 William Morris commissioned Rossetti to paint The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, along with The Blue Closet and The Tune of Seven Towers. Morris used the latter two as titles for poems in his Defense of Guenevere, though neither painter nor poet considered the watercolors to be illustrations of the poems.

A second version of the Damsel of the Sanct Grael was executed in oil for George Rae in 1874. It differs from the original watercolor, and depicts a half-length damsel enveloped in leaves. The model for the 1857 watercolor is widely considered by scholars to be Elizabeth Siddal, who served as the model for the grail damsel in several contemporary pictures by Rossetti, including Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Receiving the Sanc Grael, an unexecuted 1857 study for the Oxford Union murals. Alexa Wilding was the model for the 1874 oil version.

This watercolor possesses the clarity of composition and bold simplicity of color characteristic of Rossetti's early medieval watercolors, but can also be viewed as an early example of the remoteness and mysticism found in his later female portraits and personifications.


In this version of the subject, the grail maiden holds the Eucharistic devices in her left hand: the golden chalice brimming with blood and a basket of bread over which a folded white cloth is draped. Her right hand is raised in a gesture of benediction. Over her head hovers the white dove of the Holy Spirit with outstretched wings and bearing a smoke-emitting censer in its mouth. The dove and the maiden's head are framed by the circle of a pale golden halo. In the later oil version the maiden holds the grail in her right hand and makes the sign of blessing with her left.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Damsel of the Sanct Grael was inspired by Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, where she is mentioned three times in Book XI. Malory describes her as “passynge fayre and yonge” (XI, ii), and as “[dressed] alle in whyte.” In the watercolor she is dressed in green, however. Rossetti takes the minor Arthurian figure of the grail maiden and creates for her what was afterwards a pervasive and influential conception of her visual form. As a prototype, Rossetti may have relied on an 1855 watercolor by himself and Elizabeth Siddal depicting The Quest of the Holy Grail, in which two somber and slender Siddalesque grail angels appear. The picture also recalls the small Study of a Young Girl that Rossetti made, circa 1848-1850.


The figure of the damsel in the first of the two pictures recalls the figura mistica painted by the artist Chiaro dell' Erma in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's imaginative manifesto Hand and Soul. Chiaro's dream maiden is dressed in green.

General Description

Date: 1857.

Literary Source: Malory, Morte D'Arthur, M, Book XI. 

Physical Description

Medium: Watercolour.

Dimensions: 13 7/8 x 4 5/8 in.

Note: “Sanct Grael” is inscribed at upper left and right, the halo separating the two words.

Production Description

Production Date: 1857.

Exhibition History: R.A., 1883 (no.359); Birmingham 1947 (no.105); Whitechapel 1948 (no.70); Baden–Baden 1973–74 (no.112); Rotterdam–Paris 1976 (no.202).


Current Location: Tate Gallery.

Catalog Number: 3061.

Archival History: William Morris; George Rae; Tate Gallery 1916.

Works Cited

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur: King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table. Vol 1. William Caxton, 1485.

MLA Citation:

McGann, Jerome. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.” Rossetti Archive Galleries. The COVE: The Central Online Victorian Educator, covecollective.org. [Here, add your last date of access to The COVE].

Associated Place(s)

Part of Group:


  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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