The Idea of Merlin: Artistic Depictions of Merlin and their Inspirations

Marina Gayle Painter


Artistic depictions of the figure Merlin are numerous and varied, appearing as anything from an old wizard, a romantic youth, to a wild man.  The surprising variety of representations appears, at first, to be convoluted and illogical, but there is a rationale and history to each depiction.  Surprisingly, though, there has been very little analysis done of the Merlin figure in art history.  Thus, this paper’s goal is to fill this void by answering the following questions: how can these drastically different artistic depictions all be called by the one name Merlin?  What led to their creation? And what idea unites them?  To do so, this paper uses interdisciplinary sources to see what fostered the creation of each Merlin type, looking primarily to the influences of historical events and times, the literary instances of Merlin which inspired the artworks, as well as theological studies of Merlin.  Specifically, sources employed will be twelfth-century writings, modern critical studies of Merlin, histories of symbolism, fiction of Merlin, and Arthurian legend scholarship.  These sources are used in conjunction with representative artistic depictions of Merlin, from medieval times to the twenty-first century.  Ultimately, it is this paper’s goal to understand the different types of “Merlins,” why this variety of depictions has evolved, and what idea unites them.  Overall, this paper argues that the Merlin types are evolutions of the core idea of a character with ultimate wisdom, who is understood and represented through dualism. Each evolution of this idea, manifesting as a type, is a product of the ideas and events of their time.  Hence, when one sees Merlin, in any form, one is seeing a complex idea, morphed by history, which, to this day, still influences artists and writers.


Art; Merlin; Dualism; Wisdom; Philosophy; Literature; Medieval; Arthurian Legend; 19th century art; Medieval art; 13th century; Television

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