Achieving great things often means passing great tests. Our tests frequently deal with overcoming some type of hardship, and some of our greatest hardships are those in which our character is tempted.
The “Temptation of Sir Percival,” a work by English painter Arthur Hacker, depicts a moment of temptation from the book “Le Morte d’Arthur” (“The Death of Arthur”) by the 15th-century English author Thomas Malory.
A Knight’s Story
“The Death of Arthur” retells the story of King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail. As the story goes, Sir Percival, one of the Knights of the Round Table, attempts to find another of the knights, Sir Galahad.
There is a point in the story where Sir Percival loses his horse and is given another by a mysterious woman. He mounts his new horse and rides it until, after praying to God for safety while crossing a river, the horse reveals itself to be a fiend, which dies in the water. Realizing how close he was to being led to destruction, he prays to God to protect him from temptation.
Back on foot, Sir Percival walks into a valley where he sees a snake fighting a lion. The knight, believing that the lion is the more righteous of the two animals, slays the snake. The lion shows its appreciation before leaving Sir Percival alone again.
The knight falls asleep and dreams that two women approach him. The younger woman sits on a lion and, before she disappears, tells him to prepare for the greatest battle of his life.
The older woman sits on a snake and asks why he killed her snake. He apologizes and offers to make it up to her. She requests that he lay with her, which he refuses. She then tells him that she will wait for him to let down his guard, and then she disappears.
Sir Percival awakens and later sees sailing toward him a ship covered, within and without, in black silk. In the vessel is a bejeweled woman of great beauty. She tells him that she saw Sir Galahad, and that she will show him where Galahad is if he will return a favor. Sir Percival agrees.
She then offers him food and drink, and since he had not eaten in three days, he accepts. He eats, and then drinks a most potent wine. In his drunkenness, he thinks the woman is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Stirred by lust, he asks her to lay with him. They both undress.
Before Sir Percival falls to temptation, he sees his sword—a reminder of his oath to be a righteous knight—and he prays.
His prayer turns everything around them into black smoke, and the woman leaves with her ship. Sir Percival is ashamed and punishes himself. He then meets with an older man who arrives on a ship covered in white silk. This man tells him that the beautiful woman was the same one as in his dream, the one who rode in on a serpent, and that both were manifestations of the Devil.
Sir Percival would continue his journey, resist temptation, and become one of the three knights who sought the grail.
Hacker’s ‘The Temptation of Sir Percival’
Hacker depicted the moment in the story when Sir Percival overcomes temptation. The focal point is Sir Percival, who is shown fully dressed in knight’s armor. He sits on the earth and holds a chalice in his hands. A halo representing his holiness surrounds his head, and he looks sternly at his sword. His sword stands upright, plunged into the ground next to his helmet.
To the left is the beautiful woman. She has flowers in her hair and wears a beautiful, flowing gossamer dress. However, her body is positioned as if she is a snake slithering toward her prey. She looks intently at Sir Percival, as if she is waiting for him to take another drink of wine and lay with her.
The environment also helps to tell the story. It is dusk, and the last rays of light fall on Sir Percival’s helmet and sword. Dying leaves surround them except around the helmet and sword—they are amid greenery. In the background to the right, a shadowy childlike figure appears to snicker, revealing the event’s deceptive nature.
A Gentle Reminder to Resist Temptation
To me, Sir Percival is such a relatable hero here. We all have fallen victim to temptation; we all have made decisions that we later regret. Sir Percival does things wrong until he is reminded to do right, and it is his sword that reminds him of his sacred oath—as a knight who strove to be pure of heart—to keep his mind on God.
There’s another nugget of wisdom here: It is the gentleness of the sun’s rays that directs Sir Percival’s attention toward his sword—a weapon of force that he does not need to use here. Despite the temptation around him, he is calm and stoic. The gentle green growth around the items that remind him of his righteous oath suggests that true life does not come from giving in to temptation but from our ability to resist it.
We don’t have to be angry, hateful, or even forceful in resisting temptations or in being reminded of our righteous potential. So often, we want to force our beliefs on others because we think these beliefs are right. We want, by any means necessary, to be correct.
The combination of feeling right and forcing our beliefs on others can give us a sense of power, which can easily become a temptation in itself. In fact, when we force our beliefs on others, we often legitimize succumbing to this temptation in the confidence that we are doing good.
And how does Sir Percival resist temptation? He puts his mind on God. His focus is no longer on the woman, the source of his temptation (though she focuses on him). His righteous thoughts—represented by the halo around his head—reveal to us that his mind is on God.
The tempting illusion around him is no match for even the thought of God.
I often think that we are heroes on our own journeys. Today, our journeys are bombarded by temptations. They seem to be sewn into the fabric of our society. Temptation is so prevalent that it can sometimes be difficult to even identify them as such. But it’s never too late to gently resist with righteous thoughts and with our mind on God.
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.