The Mural of St. Athenasius
John Frallis: A Life in Oils
After his triumph with the unabashedly pagan Cassandra In Ethos, a work that aroused the admiration of even the normally reticent Millais, Frallis' absorption into the lives of the saints seemed an abrupt about face. His health, which had never been strong since his stint in the india ink factories as a youth, continued to deteriorate, and his physicians ordered him to rest in a coastal town. Loath of the sea as he was, and its associations with his mother's death, Frallis refused. However, he did go so far as to settle in the tiny by-way of Poddington-on-Slossip.
It was in Poddington-on-Slossip that Frallis became fascinated by the local folklore surrounding Harold of Athenasius, a former saint decanonized three decades before by Pope Gregory XVI on the grounds of 'Utter heresy and irreconcilable differences with the Church.' Poddington-on-Slossip's Church of St. Athenasius, established centuries before it was dedicated to the Saint and presented with his remains in 1501, had survived centuries of monastic disarray, the founding of the COE, roundheads, and popular disbelief. It was Frallis' contribution to the church, however, that aroused the ire of local villagers, however, and may in part have led to his mysterious demise.
It was shortly after the Rector of the Church of St. Athenasius threatened to remove the frescos from the walls of the nave that Frallis disappeared. Although many of his erstwhile unsupportive Pre-Raphaelite colleagues were outraged at the vaunted desecration, and accused the Rector of exiling the artist, or worse, the local constabulatory found no trace of foul play. Many have speculated upon the last 'lost three years' of Frallis' life. Some believe that he left the tiny village a broken man, to wander through his favorite landscape, the Alps (though Summin's study indicates no evidence to support this popular claim). Others, though, are puzzled under the circumstances by which Frallis' body was found, freshly mangled in the tiny village grist mill, three years to the day after his vanishing.
From an Apology from Edmund Millister, Rector, Church of St. Athenasius, 1871, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti
. . . Believe me, good sir, I never believed my predecessor in this position in any way a man of artistic perception, as I know you yourself are, and believe myself to be. . . . the fresco of the life of St. Athenasius as painted by our lately vanished neighbor and I dare say friend to many in the village of Poddington-on-Slossip is a masterpiece and yet. . . .
. . . . I find that I cannot allow such salacious provender to be served to the community upon the Table Of The Lord, as it were. . . . surely in one of the London Galleries such a thing would not seem out of place, but in this quiet and peaceful town, we are not so sophisticated. . . . I pray you will not take these words as the ramblings of a Country Cousin, but the concerns of one who must be a pastor to his people, and thus I remain, &etc &etc. . . . .
A Description of the Six Panels of the Fresco, with Explication from John Frallis, Visionary Victim: A Study of the Iconography, Symbolism, and Technique of his Later Years by Hermione Trump, Lecturer, Magnusson College
Fresco the First: The Birth of Harold of Athenasius
The fresco depicting the birth of St. Athenasius manages to be both lovely in execution and gruesome in subject matter, as it is a rapturous rendition of his birth via Cesarian section on the banks of the river Nyx. A number of ruddy cherubs waft the bloody babe from his mother's womb, while sea nymphs comb his lovely dead mother's hair. In the background, surrounded by clouds, floats an English village. A close inspection of the village landscape shows a nude female creature, elaborately bedecked with varigated wings, wresting a sleeping babe from its cradle.
'. . . . A radiant study in golds and reds, Frallis's first picture captures both the breathtaking beauty typical of the Pre-Raphaelites at their most rapturous. The symbolism is stark, yet simple: The child saint is ripped, like Caesar, from the open womb of Agatha of Athenasius, mirroring the theft of an infant in the background above by a wood sprite, or British pixie. . . . '
Fresco the Second: The Coming of Harold of Athenasius to Poddington
The second fresco is executed in the same vibrant and realistic Pre-Raphaelite style as the others in the series. In brilliant gold leaf and vibrant flesh tones, Frallis here has painted St. Athenasius as an adult, stepping from a raft onto the shores of the primitive huts of the village later to become Poddington. He is surrounded by a score of villagers, the women bare-breasted, the men naked and carrying spears, whose eyes are plainly of lascivious intent.
'. . . . Young Saint Harold, here represented in traditional Apollonian iconography, as exemplified in the idealized golden visage vectorially amplified by the detailed sun, is surrounded by the stunted, dwarfed forms of the Poddington villagers, their faces drawn in depraved carmines accented by porcelain whites to represent their descent into the base carnality that lies at the heart of the English countryside. . . . '
Fresco the Third: The Temptation of Harold of Athenasius
The third fresco is surely the most beautiful of the series. It is dominated by the glorious rendition of a goddess-like faerie, comely in face and figure, voluptuous in form, her naked breasts pertly pointing at the supine Harold of Athenasius. In her hands she carries a half-eaten nectarine, so realistic it glistens with moist juices, and a scroll inscribed with erotic pictures. The saint appears about to succumb to the succubus's insistent tantalizations--his blowsy shirt is open, his lips parted, and the crucifix normally around his neck dangles precariously from his trembling hand.
'. . . . Although many have speculated on the model for the voluptuous Faerie Queen, the most commonly accepted view is that Frallis used a local model, perhaps the elusively documented Sarah Jennings, as a basis for what is plainly the most elaborate other-worldly rendering among all Pre-Raphaelite paintings. . . . '
Fresco the Fourth: The Scourging of Poddington by Harold of Athenasius
The fourth fresco is as disturbing as it is lovely. In it St. Athenasius dominates the top half of the picture, a whip in one hand, a knife of cold iron in the other, his brow furrowed in bloody concentration as he and the villagers of Poddington lay rout to the demons that have plagued them for decades. Beneath the feet of the saint are the torn, tattered wings of the once-lovely Faerie Queen....the rest of her mutilated body lies lifeless some distance away. The tortured expressions of the bleeding and battered faeries as they run from the hands of the villagers is painful to behold.
'. . . . Thunderous as the 'Dies Irae' of Mozart's Requiem, stormy as the book of Revelations itself, Frallis's dark vision of the expulsion of paradise from the valley of sin shares much of the stark carnality of the third fresco, yet completely dissociates itself from its many visceral pleasures. . . . '
Fresco the Fifth: The Lamentation of Poddington
The fifth fresco is a melancholy piece. In it, St. Athenasius sits before the ruins of the first church built in Poddington, now burned to the ground, his face buried in his hands, recognizable only by the crucifix about his stalwart neck. In the distance, the villagers of Poddington, having discarded their clothing in the foreground to revert back to their primitive dress or to abject nakedness, dance with a shining folk in the background of the fresco. Many of the faces of the shining folk are recognizable as the demons of the previous fresco, and several of the villagers still carry the torches used to reduce the church to rubble.
'. . . . A title of irony, surely, for it is St. Athenasius who laments in his bravely rendered exploration of emotional and anthropological entropy. Of this particular fresco, Frallis wrote to his sister, 'It would seem that despite the villagers' irrational reverance for the fellow, St. Athenasius was in the wrong in driving the demons from Poddington, for are not demons all that is lasting and lovely in this world of progress and machinization? I have looked the demons in their eyes and known that within them lies the true frontiers of this new world. . . .'
Fresco the Sixth: The Martyrdom of Harold of Athenasius
Many have gazed upon this fresco and been unable to reconcile its glowing colors and rapturous swirling motions with its grisly subject matter. The languishing body of Harold of Athenasius lies within a circle of grass, bleeding from numerous talon punctures and bruised from the rocks of the villagers who surround him, mingled with the beautiful shining faerie host. The Faerie Queen, once again sprouting wings, looks sadly upon the saint from the side as she kisses the still-beating heart she has seemingly just ripped from his breast. A number of demon-faced cherubs comfort the dying saint.
'. . . . The fondness for irony was always a trait of the Pre-Raphaelite cadre, and surely modern critics would regard the subject matter of this picture as trite, were it not based in documented fact. Frallis's sense of whimsey, however, does not exclude the viewer from the studied and planned iconography of the piece. . . . '