24 December 2013

Art for Advent (24): ‘The Nativity,’
by Edward Burne-Jones

‘The Nativity,’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Patrick Comerford

As Advent comes to an end and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I have chosen as my last work of Art for Advent this Christmas Eve morning ‘The Nativity’ by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).

This is my second choice of a work by this Pre-Raphaelite artist and is one of a pair of monumental paintings commissioned for the chancel of the Church of Saint John the Apostle in Torquay in 1887.

At the time, Torquay was a prosperous Victorian Devonshire seaside resort. The architect George Edmund Street, who also designed the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, was commissioned to design this Gothic Revival church in 1861. However, Street’s plans were revised a number of times over a period of 20 years, and the church was not completed until 1885.

The church was decorated by Morris & Co., the decorative arts firm founded in the 1860s by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

Morris was a protége and former assistant of GE Street. But, while Street and Morris emphasised the rich polychromy of mediaeval art, and patterned ornament on walls, floors and ceilings, Burne-Jones was drawn to the spiritual intensity and symbolic narratives of paintings, sculpture and stained glass.

Burne-Jones designed the glass for the east and west windows in Saint John’s, the most important windows in the church. When the parishioners of Saint John’s commissioned two huge mural paintings from Burne-Jones for the north and south walls of the chancel in 1887 – ‘The Nativity’ and ‘The King and the Shepherd’ – they were closely following the overall decorative programme first sketched by Street in his designs of the 1860s.

Each of these large paintings by Burne-Jones measures 81 x 124 inches. These two paintings for Saint John’s were among his most original and elaborate treatments of the subject, and among his favourites.

Several of his studies for ‘The Nativity’ have survived. A pencil drawing that sold at Sotheby’s in New York last year (2012) places Saint Joseph on the right, while an 1887 pastel sketch in the New Art Gallery, Walsall, shows the final composition but a very different colour palette.

The position of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child is similar to Burne-Jones’s design in 1879 for a bronze relief of the Nativity. The relief was commissioned by George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, as part of a monument to his parents for Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, and a drawing of this design is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Burne-Jones began his work on the two paintings, ‘The Nativity’ and ‘The King and the Shepherd’ with small sketches in pastel, made at his home in Rottingdean, in April 1887.

His two sketches for ‘The Nativity’ indicate that the main motifs of the reclining Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, the three attending angels, and the landscape background were already fixed in his mind. However, the position of Saint Joseph changed from one of anxious attendance on the far right, to a seated, contemplative pose in the centre of the composition. This alteration increased his composition’s resemblance to the nativity scene on the walls of the Arena Chapel, near Padua, by the Italian painter Giotto (1266-1336).

Once the main elements were in place, Burne-Jones then began working on a series of studies of individual figures. Each of these was then traced, squared to be scaled up to life-size, and inserted into the overall design. The paintings were then executed in his studio.

‘The Nativity’ depicts the Virgin Mary reclining on a straw-filled manger or crib, protectively embracing the Christ Child in swaddling clothes. Saint Joseph, who has his back to the viewer, sits on the ground in the centre of the composition, reading a manuscript in Gothic script.

At the left, three angels are bearing the symbols of the Passion and Crucifixion: the crown of thorns, a container of myrrh and a chalice. These symbols are echoed by the Virgin’s white robe, reminiscent of a shroud, the child’s shroud-like swaddling clothes and the carefully formed draperies transforming the manger into a rustic bier.

These elements are also found in Giotto’s fresco in the Arena Chapel that influenced the initial design.

The mood is unusually solemn, even melancholy. In combining the scene of Christ’s birth with the portents of his death, Burne-Jones revives a subject that was popular in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Why did Burne-Jones adopt such a sombre interpretation of the Nativity, considering the Victorians had romanticised Christmas and enjoyed it lavishly?

He gives us some clues in the Latin inscription from the Psalms emblazoned across the golden sky in script similar to that in Saint Joseph’s book:

Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus

“Because the poor are despoiled,
because the needy groan,
I will now rise up,” says the Lord” (Psalm 12: 5).

The quotation is from Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Septuagint. But the citation may not have been associated with the Nativity before its use in this context by Burne-Jones, yet is important in understanding his interpretation of this subject.

This citation may not have been associated with the Nativity before its use in this context by Burne-Jones, yet is important in understanding his interpretation of this subject.

Morris and Burne-Jones were strongly influenced by the Christian Socialism associated with the Anglo-Catholic movement. Burne-Jones was deeply worried about the plight of the working class and the impoverished and marginalised people in the slums and inner cities. He believed it was the artist’s role to “paint God for the world,” working with the artist’s “power of bringing God into the world – making God manifest. It is giving back her Child that was crucified to Our Lady of the Sorrows.”

In 1989, Saint John’s parish sold ‘The Nativity’ and its companion painting, ‘The King and the Shepherd,’ in 1989 to pay for a new roof for the church. Copies of the original paintings were hung in the place of the two original paintings, which were bought for £1.5 million by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Art experts visiting Lloyd Weber’s collection advised him that his fine Victorian drawings, many hung near windows, would suffer irreversible damage if continuously exposed to light. They advised him to move all the drawings to darker rooms, preferably to the very dark entrance hall that housed ‘The Nativity’ and ‘The King and the Shepherd.’

The problems of how to reorganise his collection and find a new place for his large works by Burne-Jones were very much on the composer’s mind in 1996 when he returned to Pittsburgh where his musical Jesus Christ Superstar had its world premiere in 1971.

In 1997, Lloyd Webber donated the paintings to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, had its premiere in 1971, hoping they would find a suitable and sympathetic home.

‘The Star of Bethlehem’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery now has the largest collection of works by Burne-Jones in the world, including his massive watercolour ‘The Star of Bethlehem,’ which was commissioned for the gallery in 1887. The paintings are believed by some to have influenced the young JRR Tolkien while he was growing up in Birmingham.

Burne-Jones laboured on ‘The Star of Bethlehem’ in his garden studio in Kensington, using a ladder to reach the upper areas of the composition. He complained that the painting was physically tiring: “Up my steps and down, and from right to left. I have journeyed as many miles already as ever the kings travelled.”

A contemporary critic praised the “strange and radiant” angel figure in the centre of the grouping, slightly upraised beside the kings bearing their presents, relating it to Burne-Jones’s “own peculiar vein of mysticism.”

Asked by a young girl whether he believed in the scene he had depicted in ‘The Star of Bethlehem,’ he replied: “It is too beautiful not to be true.”

Tomorrow: Art for Christmas (1): ‘The Nativity of Christ’ by Juliet Venter.

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