The story of these gigantic works of art and how they got from Victorian England to late 20th-century Pittsburgh begins in Torquay, a prosperous seaside resort town in Devonshire, England. It was there in the late 1880s that the church of St. John, an elaborate Gothic Revival building by the famous architect George Edwin Street, was finally approaching completion. It had been commissioned as far back as 1861, but plans were still being revised 20 years later, and the actual construction was not completed until 1885. That year the architect’s son, A. E. Street, added the church’s tower, which the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner has described as “fatally ugly” and “a great pity considering the view of Torquay from the harbour.”
The involvement of pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) with the church of St. John had begun when the firm of Morris & Company, architectural decorators, decorated its interior. Morris & Company had been founded in the 1860s under the leadership of William Morris, a protége and former assistant of Street. Burne-Jones met him while both were undergraduates at Oxford and became a lifelong, founding member of the firm. Despite very different personalities both men developed a disgust for the bourgeois professions for which their parents had destined them, along with a love of the art and poetry of the Middle Ages and a burning desire to reform the industrial world by returning to pre-industrial principles of craftsmanship and design. All of the members of this visionary firm found inspiration in medieval art, and illuminated manuscripts in particular. In a series of public and private decorative projects they successfully revolutionized concepts of beauty and style in the latter half of the 19th century. While Street and Morris emphasized medieval art’s rich polychromy and patterned ornament on walls, floors and ceilings, Burne-Jones was drawn to the spiritual intensity and symbolic narratives of the paintings, sculpture and stained glass. He designed the glass for St. John’s east and west windows, the most important in the church. Thus, when the St. John’s parishioners commissioned two huge mural paintings from Burne-Jones for the north and south walls of the chancel in 1887, they were adhering closely to the overall decorative program first sketched out in Street’s designs of the 1860s.
By 1887 Burne-Jones was probably the most admired and respected artist
in England, despite an invalidish, reclusive personality and a reluctance
to exhibit his paintings publicly. The son of a Birmingham shopkeeper,
he had been destined for a career in law, although his deeply religious
sensibility seemed to position him better for the ministry. Ultimately
he carried his sense of spiritual mission into the field of painting, which
he attempted, naively and amateurishly at first, in the 1850s. As his commitment
to art deepened, Burne-Jones bypassed the formal schooling offered by the
Royal Academy, London, and studied instead with the self-taught painter
and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose medieval interests and literary
imagination appealed directly to his own scholarly tastes. Because of his
association with Rossetti (a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood)
and his serious study of early Italian art (before Raphael, hence, pre-Raphaelite),
Burne-Jones is usually considered the last great figure in this innovative
group of Victorian painters. He came into his own as a history painter
at the first important showing of his canvases at the Grosvenor Gallery,
London, in 1877. By then he had formulated a distinctive style characterized
by subdued, cool-toned coloring; idealized, elongated figures; and religious
or mythological subject matter. His greatest paintings dating from the
1870s until the end of his career are simultaneously visionary and enthralling.
As he wrote to a friend, “I mean by a picture, a beautiful, romantic dream
of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than any
light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember,--only desire.”
(Masters in Art, vol. 2, p. 24) Although he shunned the horrors of industrialization,
mass production, and urban poverty and longed for the tragic heroes and
romantic simplicity of the past, he could be moved by the predicaments
of modern humanity, as we shall see below.
For the church of St. John, Burne-Jones produced the two paintings now known as The Nativity and The King and the Shepherd. He probably began with some small sketches in pastel, made at his home, Rottingdean, in April 1887. The two sketches made for The Nativity indicate that the main motifs of the reclining Virgin and child, the three attending angels, and the landscape background were already fixed in his mind. However, the position of St. Joseph changed from one of anxious attendance on the far right, to a seated, contemplative pose in the center of the composition. This alteration increased his composition’s resemblance to a famous nativity scene on the walls of the Arena Chapel, near Padua, by the Italian painter Giotto (1266-1336), which Burne-Jones would have known and admired. Once the main elements were set in place, Burne-Jones proceeded to a series of individual figure studies, each of which was then traced, squared to be scaled up to life size, and inserted into the overall design. The process, a centuries-old method of preparing monumental paintings, is illustrated with the drawings for the seated St. Joseph. The paintings were executed in Burne-Jones’ studio, probably with some help from a workshop assistant as the artist was burdened during these years with increasingly poor health and other important commissions.
Measuring an impressive 81 x 124 inches each, they are among the artist’s most original and elaborate treatments of this traditional Christian subject, one of his favorites. The Nativity depicts the Virgin reclining on a straw-filled manger or crib, embracing the swaddled Christ child. St. Joseph, his back to the viewer, sits on the ground in the center of the composition; he is reading a manuscript in Gothic script. To the far left stand three angels bearing the crown of thorns, a container of myrrh and a chalice, emblems of the passion and crucifixion. These grim symbols are echoed by the Virgin’s white robe, reminiscent of a shroud, the child’s shroudlike swaddling clothes and the carefully formed draperies transforming the manger into a rustic bier. These elements are also found in Giotto’s Arena Chapel fresco that probably influenced the initial design. The mood is unusually solemn, even melancholy. In combining the scene of Christ’s birth with portents of his death, Burne-Jones revives a subject that had been popular in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries, the epoch of the Black Death. According to Marina Warner, survivors of the great plagues had found consolation in this conception of the Virgin sorrowing in the knowledge of the suffering and death that awaited her son.
Why did Burne-Jones adopt such an antiquated and somber interpretation of the nativity, one of the Christian church’s most joyful moments? It is especially curious, given the Victorians’ lavish enjoyment of the Christmas holiday. He gives us some clues in the Latin inscription emblazoned across the golden sky in script similar to that in St. Joseph’s book: PROPTER MISERIAM INOPUM ET GEMITUM PAUPERIS NUNC EXSURGAM DICIT DOMINUS [Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord.]. There are several unusual aspects to this quotation. It comes from the Gallican Psalter (Psalm 11, verse 6), St. Jerome’s Latin translation of part of the Greek bible. The Gallican Psalter has not been found in bibles since the 17th century, however, because it had been determined not to be the work of the psalms’ author, King David. Nor had the quotation appeared, before Burne-Jones’ time, in association with the nativity, since it refers more directly to the resurrection. Its very oddness and obscurity (the translation was only found with the help of an internet search in Latin!) signals its importance to Burne-Jones’ interpretation of his subject.
The verse’s reference to human misery relates it to the motif of the suffering Christ and Our Lady of the Sorrows but offers hope in the promise of the Resurrection. In the paragraph below, part of a conversation with another friend about the role of the artist in contemporary life, Burne-Jones developed further this story of nativity, crucifixion and human redemption and of the artist’s role in its realization.
“To me, this weary, toiling, groaning world is none other than Our Lady of the Sorrows. It lies on you and me and all the faithful to make her Our Lady of the Glories. Will she ever be so? Will she? Will she? She shall be, if your toil and mine, and the toil of a thousand ages of them that come after us can make her so!”...”That was an awful thought of Ruskin’s, that artists paint God for the world. There’s a lump of greasy pigment at the end of Michael Angelo’s hog-bristle brush, and by the time it has been laid on the stucco, there is something there that all men with eyes recognize as divine. Think of what it means. It is the 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.”
The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, p. 257
In other words, Burne-Jones felt that these ancient descriptions of human misery and a sorrowful world also described his own time and place. In fact, when he chose the verse, it is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s. The violent strikes and vicious riots in 1886, 1887 and 1888 (just as Burne-Jones was planning and executing his paintings for St. John’s), during which “outcast London” invaded the wealthy sections of town, were perceived as a true index of their desperation and degradation. Public outrage and fear prompted both relief efforts and movements toward political and social reform. One of the most outspoken, visible and committed champions of the poor was Burne-Jones’ friend and partner, Willam Morris. Burne-Jones himself gently deplored the political activities that drew his partner away from their artistic projects while sympathizing--at a safe distance--with the cause. He reacted privately in a small, personal volume of drawings known as his Flower Book (1880s). The tiny, carefully worked images take their names from flowers, but they are not in the least botanical. “Arbor Tristis” [Tree of Sorrow] depicts a ruined tree serving as the cross of the Crucifixion. It is surrounded by dark huddled buildings, the slums of suffering urban masses. One can only speculate, without firm evidence from the artist himself, that he intended The Nativity as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. Perhaps he hoped that like Michelangelo, he could capture the Divine in paint, and so alleviate some of his era’s sorrows.
Significantly, this is the only treatment (of which I am aware) of the adoration of shepherds and magi which places them on a canvas separate from the Holy Family. This worked well in St. John’s, for when The King and the Shepherd hung across the chancel from The Nativity, it represented literally humanity approaching, and recognizing, the Divine. Furthermore, Burne-Jones’ insistence on the equality of the king and the shepherd--the rich and the poor--gains prominence in the absence of the Holy Family. The composition is divided evenly between them while the center, the position of honor, is empty of figures. They are equal in height, and the richly dressed king fails to outshine the ragged shepherd. Each has his angel. Perhaps Burne-Jones gives slight preference to the shepherd, making him spokesman for the group and situating him closer to the bend of the path presumably leading to the Holy Family. (The poor often have been considered to be closer to God.) Many years before, the great art critic John Ruskin had chastised the artist for favoring the shepherds. Burne-Jones recalled the moment in a letter to Ruskin (c.1888-89): “Do you remember ages ago, in Milan it was, when in the impudence of youth I said I liked the subject of the Shepherds best, and you straightway blew me up, and said ‘No, Ned, they had everything to gain by coming, and it was greater grace in the kings to leave their kingdoms and come.’ At which I was abashed and fell to thinking. So I am taking great pains over the kings, and have repented.” (Memorials, p. 176-77) Repentant or not, Burne-Jones seems here to be suggesting that shepherds and kings are equal in the eyes of God and would do well to approach the future together.
Burne-Jones was not the only late19th-century artist to consider massive social ills in a religious context. There were many artists, angered by the cruelties and excesses of the Gilded Age, who posed the question: what would happen if Christ returned to this modern society? One need think only of James Ensor’s brutal Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), where the mob rants on, oblivious to the tiny figure of Christ, or Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret’s enormous painting of The Supper at Emmaus (1896, Carnegie Museum of Art) where the artist and his family contemplate the resurrected Saviour with both reverence and skepticism. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these works of the 19th-century fin-de-siecle are enjoying resurrections of a sort as we approach not only a fin-de-siecle of our own, but also a new millennium.
Coincidence was a factor, however, in the history of the two Burne-Jones paintings. In the 1980s the church of St. John developed problems with its roof, and to pay for a new one sold the two paintings, its most valuable treasures. Andrew Lloyd Weber, benefitting from an astonishing string of hit musicals beginning with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” bought the pair for his burgeoning, first-class collection of Victorian paintings in 1989. Then, luck and coincidence came together with astonishing rapidity in the fall of 1996. Art experts visiting Lloyd Weber’s collection in September 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 of the drawings to darker rooms, preferably to the very dark entrance hall which housed The Nativity and The King and the Shepherd. The problem of how to reorganize his collection and find a new place for his enormous Burne-Joneses was therefore very much on Lloyd Webber’s mind when he came to Pittsburgh in October 1996 to receive an award from the Civic Light Opera. Pittsburgh had been the site of the 1971 world premiere of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and the composer seems to have remembered the town with fondness. Luckily for the Carnegie, he found time to visit the museum during his brief stay in the city. Describing his experience in Pittsburgh for the London Telegraph, he wrote, “Andrew Carnegie founded a massive gallery that contains everything from dinosaurs to brilliant contemporary purchases of American 19th-century pictures. Then, of course, there’s Andy Warhol. There’s an art gallery devoted to the local boy’s wares, ...” In fact, he perceived that “Pittsburgh is no different from every town whose loot came from 19th-century industry.” The North Side reminded him of industrial Liverpool, while the grand residential East End mansions might legitimately call to mind the suburban development of Victorian Torquay. In the end, he offered his Burne-Joneses to the museum, feeling that in Pittsburgh they would find a suitable and sympathetic home. We hope he comes to visit them often.
Louise Lippincott is curator of Fine Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Flower Book (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1994).
Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (New York: Macmillan Company, 1906).
“Burne-Jones” in Masters in Art, vol. 2 (Boston: Bates &
Guild Company, 1901).