Edward Burne-Jones was a divinity student at Exeter College when he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Under Rossetti’s influence, he and his future collaborator, William Morris, left college to pursue careers in the arts. Having had no regular training as a draftsman, Burne-Jones stated that he had “found himself at five-and-twenty what he ought to have been at fifteen,” but in time succeeded in developing an artistic style distinct from Rossetti’s.
The Merciful Knight is regarded as the first mature expression of this style. His wife Georgiana observed that it seemed “to sum up and seal the ten years that had passed since Edward first went to Oxford.” It was also the artist’s favorite of his own early works. Its inspiration is the legend of Giovanni Gualberto, an 11th-century knight who, on Good Friday, spared the life of a man who had killed his brother, when that man begged for mercy in the name of Christ. Afterward, Gualberto prayed at the Benedictine Church at San Miniato, where he witnessed the figure on the crucifix bowing his head in recognition. Gualberto became the founder of the Vallumbrosan Order and was canonized in 1193.
Together, Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones led the medievalist faction of the Pre-Raphaelites. Inspired by medieval romances and Arthurian legends, they sought to revive the enchantment and chivalric ideals of the Middle Ages.