That Beadsman [or Bedesman], Old. James Smetham. 1869. Oil on canvas. H 30.3 x W 45.5 cm, accession number SM12. Acquisition method: deposited at Westminster College, Oxford, 1997. Bequeathed to Oxford Brookes University by the artist's great-great-grandson upon his death under the Capital Taxes Exemption Scheme, 2016. © Oxford Brookes University/Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, reproduced with permission. Caption material added by Jacqueline Banerjee, who also added the comments below.
John Keats's "The Eve of St Agnes" (1819) was the inspiration for several Pre-Raphaelite paintings, but they generally took their subject from the romantic incidents surrounding the young lovers, Madeline and Porphyro. This one takes its cue from the wider setting established in the opening stanzas of the poem:
St. Agnes' Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in the wooly fold;
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat'ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails. [ll. 1-18]
Nothing could be more of a contrast, either to the noisy festivities inside the castle, or to the warm glow surrounding the young lovers. This is not the outer world, into which the lovers must escape, but a vision of the human condition as such, the inevitable suffering and death that it involves, and the penance that needs to be paid — the prayers that need to be said — before deliverance from it. Enclosing the romantic dream at the heart of the poem are Keats's final lines, returning the reader again to this solitary figure: "The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,/ For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold."
So far, so grim: but what is really wonderful here is the lantern that the Beadsman carries, shedding its light into the gloom. The Beadsman, who has such pity for the souls in purgatory, has turned his face towards us, and the light reminds us of Jesus's saying, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8, 12). In fact, the Pre-Raphaelite painting that most comes to mind here is William Holman Hunt's, The Light of the World.
As a dark painting, this is so skilfully managed. Another source of light at the back, from the Gothic stained glass window, glimmers over the ranks of effigies. It slightly illuminates the columns of the crypt, until it meets the lantern light in the foreground. The armorial bearings on the front of the foremost tomb also become visible here. This is a very accomplished and moving work.
Keats, John. Selected Poems and Letters of Keats. Ed. Robert Gittings. London: Heinemann, 1966.
Created 28 May 2021