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The Printed Image: The Golden Legend

For this installment of The Printed Image, I’m returning to a book format to highlight the illustrations of Sidney H. Meteyard for The Golden Legend, a narrative poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This particular edition was published by Hodder & Stoughton in New York, around 1910.

Taking place in medieval Italy, the poem recounts the struggles of Prince Henry of Hoheneck, who is stricken with a malady that can only be cured by the blood of a maiden who consents to die for his sake. Through the machinations and deceptions of Lucifer himself, Henry loses his princely seat and becomes an outcast, finding solace only with Elsie, the daughter of a former vassal. Elsie is so moved by his plight that she decides to sacrifice her life for his, so as to become closer to Christ. Eventually, Elise is kidnapped by Lucifer and rescued by Henry, who is miraculously healed during the rescue effort. The two lovers are happily married, and Henry is restored to his princely seat.

Title page for The Golden Legend, printed with gold ink.

Meteyard’s illustrations capture Longfellow’s story with precise, detailed paintings, filled with rich costuming and environments. Working in a late Pre-Raphaelite style, his illustrations bear similarities to the paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Upon first seeing them, I was also reminded of the works of illustrators Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, who would work with similar medieval subjects and compositions in their own works. While Meteyard’s illustrations are rooted in realistic environments and subjects, he also finds ways to refer to the fantastic, romantic, and macabre elements of the story.

‘It was a dream, and would not stay;
A dream that in a single night
Faded…’ (page 108)

‘A poor old woman with a rosary,
Follows the sound, and seems to wish her feet
Were swifter…’ (page 116)

‘It seems to me
The body of St. Catherine, borne by angels!’
(page 119)

In the book itself, each illustration is protected by a thin sheet of transparent paper which includes a quote from the poem, acting in a way as a title for the illustration itself. Additionally, you may detect from these photos that the illustrations are are not entirely affixed to the pages, as they almost float above the page with just a bit of adhesive on the top portion.

Technically, these printed images would be referred to as tipped-in plates, where they are printed separately from the text of the book using a different printing process and then added later. This could be done for a variety of reasons; in this case, it allows the images to be printed through a lithographic process, thus reproducing as closely as possible Meteyard’s paintings, while the text of the book could be printed on letterpress. By using multiple printing methods, this creates a way to include color illustrations in a way that may not have been achievable through simply one printing method at the time.

‘I saw her standing on the deck
Beneath an awning cool and shady’ (page 146)

The Golden Legend may be viewed in Falvey Library’s Rare Book Room by appointment. A similar edition of this book is also available digitally through Open Library.


Mike Sgier is a Distinctive Collections Coordinator at Falvey Library.


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Last Modified: June 27, 2023

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