An article written by Fiona MacCarthy
Wings of desire - The Guardian, Saturday 23 December 2006
Christmas would not be Christmas without a Burne-Jones angel. Archangels. Guardian angels. Ministering angels, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, leading the blind. Annunciation angels with blush-pink wings. Joyful angelic cheerleaders, the Angeli Laudantes: angels playing trumpets, angels swinging censers, angels striking bells. Even in a multi-faith, multicultural society, Christmas comes in with a rush of angel wings.
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones was one of the very great Victorian artists, adored in aesthetic circles for his charm and idiosyncratic wit, made a baronet by Gladstone, given a memorial service in Westminster Abbey on the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales. He was the first artist ever to be honoured in this way. His first recorded design for a stained-glass window, an annunciation scene, is dated 1857, when he was in his 20s. "I must by now have designed enough to fill Europe," he groaned as he designed his final hosts of angels, for Gladstone's memorial in the church at Hawarden, Wales, in 1898.
What kind of angels are they? Forget Rubens's dimpled cherubs or the saccharine angels in Guido Reni paintings. These are dignified, mysterious, medieval Christian apparitions, close in tenor to the angels in the illuminated manuscripts. Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris studied avidly in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Burne-Jones was not himself a Christian. Although he had once been intended for the church, like so many young intellectuals of his generation he had lost his faith and despised the church establishment: "Belong to the Church of England? Put your head in a bag!" But he did not lose his love of what he termed "Christmas carol Christianity", its directness and its clarity, its colour and its joy.
At the same time, Burne-Jones angels are Italianate angels. In the 1860s and 1870s he made four Italian journeys, one of them in company with Ruskin, covering the ground from Venice to Florence, from Assisi to Rome, absorbing the art and architecture of the Tuscan hill towns that from then on began to infiltrate his paintings.
Burne-Jones threw himself into the art of the Renaissance, enraptured by Bellini, Mantegna and Botticelli. From the 1870s this changed the whole direction of his work. His angels became quasi-Botticellian, girlish golden Primaveras of extraordinary sweetness, purity and promise. The great series 'Angels of the Hierarchy', designed by Burne-Jones for the south transept window of Jesus College, Cambridge - Seraphim, Cherubim, Throni, Potentates, Dominationes and the rest - are almost Michelangelesque in their power and complexity, in the sheer mouvementé quality of their draughtsmanship. When William Morris designed angels, they were often rather stiff ones, all too English. Burne-Jones angels can be recognised by their fluidity.
The most dramatic and convincing is the bearer of the news in his painting 'The Annunciation', now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight, Merseyside. This astonishing winged figure in her alluringly knotted drapery delivers the announcement still suspended in mid-air to an anxious-looking Virgin - for whom Virginia Woolf's mother, Julia Jackson, was Burne-Jones's model for the head. The Virgin stands in an interior so Italian in its detail it could be set in the V&A's current exhibition, 'At Home in Renaissance Italy' [2006-2007].
But of course these are also Victorian angels. The ministering angels, in particular, give the impression of being newly married, docile, even-tempered, thoughtful, advertising the popular Victorian concept of the angel in the house. Burne-Jones was a romantic, given to wild passions for beautiful, just-nubile, well-bred young girls, and many of his angels are interchangeable with the real-life society girls he depicted, as in his chorus line of beauty descending the marble stairway in that wonderful painting, 'The Golden Stairs'. These were the angels of the aesthetic movement, satirised by Gilbert & Sullivan in 'Patience', accused of being dressed in "tinfoil night-gowns". Greenery-yallery girls. Burne-Jones's angels might be viewed as the posh hippies of their time.
These are angels of his own desire, and there is a kind of androgyny about them. The golden-haired, bright-visaged daughters of the souls, the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, could as well be the decorative Florentine youths to whose beauty Burne-Jones was endlessly susceptible. Though not overtly homosexual himself, his circle was a wide one and included Oscar Wilde and the pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, whom Burne-Jones continued to befriend after Solomon's arrest in a London public lavatory made him a virtual outcast and ended his career. Connoisseurs of male eroticism hung their Burne-Jones pictures alongside their Simeon Solomons. His angels have a sexual ambivalence.
In 'Love Leading the Pilgrim', the painting now in Tate Britain over which Burne-Jones laboured for two decades, Love appears both as a Christian angel and as Cupid, a winged love god of classical antiquity. Love is the retriever, leading the hunched figure of the pilgrim through the thicket, out towards the hallowed plain. The dark wings of the angel are accurately pre-Raphaelite in detailing - authentic eagle's wings. It is a strange and sombre picture, and utterly compelling. After a long period of derision and neglect, Burne-Jones has rightly been re-emerging as the most powerful of all pre-Raphaelite artists, a major influence on both European symbolism and 20th-century modernist art.
He was a pioneer, cutting across the boundaries between so-called fine and decorative arts. With his lifelong collaborator, William Morris, he was one of the co-founders, in 1861, of the decorating firm that became Morris & Co. From then on there was almost an industry in angels as Burne-Jones's designs, interpreted by professional craftsmen in stained glass, mosaic, embroidery and tapestry, were redistributed and multiplied.
In all, several thousand stained-glass windows were made by Morris & Co in their specialist workshops. The great majority of figures in these windows were based on full-size cartoons provided by Burne-Jones. The artist, a compulsive joker, lamented that at £200 per large-scale window he was being grotesquely underpaid, and perhaps he had a point. His biblical scenes, his panoplies of saints and angels, were endlessly recycled, ordered from the catalogue presented to Morris & Co clients. A Burne-Jones 'Annunciation', for example, first designed in 1873 for Jesus College, Cambridge, was reused over the next 20 years in churches in Bolton, Broughton, Chelsea, Jersey, Kirkcaldy, Plymouth, Speldhurst, Tamworth, Whitton in Shropshire and even in New York.
His angels were still appearing decades after both his own death and William Morris's in memorial windows for the fallen of the first world war. These reappearances, far from detracting from their value, make them more moving. New colourings, new backgrounds, new architectural settings mean that these figures, though arrestingly familiar, are actually never quite the same. Morris & Co windows have become part of the fabric of the nation, the absolute high point of Victorian church art.
In 1878 Burne-Jones designed two pairs of angels - 'Angeli Ministrantes' and 'Angeli Laudantes' - to be made in stained glass for Salisbury Cathedral. He invoiced these as "four colossal and sublime figures of Angels", which indeed they are. In the early 1890s these designs were adapted to make tapestries. William Morris was by then reviving rare techniques of high-warp tapestry weaving in his works at Merton Abbey on the banks of the Wandle. Burne-Jones's Angeli were part of Morris's "bright dream" to resuscitate the neglected art of tapestry in Britain. Though the Angeli panels were designed as a pair, with linking narratives of colouring and symbolism, they spent the next century apart, the 'Angeli Laudantes' in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the 'Angeli Ministrantes' in various private collections lost to sight. They were only finally reunited in 1993, when the V&A was able to purchase the 'Angeli Ministrantes' through the National Art Collections Fund. The tapestries now hang together, one pair of blue-winged angels, one pair with rose-tinged feathers, standing in an English garden of pinks, harebells and little lilies. They represent Burne-Jones at his most magnificently weird.
In the mid-1890s the Morris & Co weavers were at work on even more ambitious Burne-Jones designs for a series of six Arthurian tapestries for Stanmore Hall. The epic San Graal cycle tells the story of the knights' quest for the holy grail, the narrative Burne-Jones had loved from boyhood. In this late Victorian masterwork, Burne-Jones angels loom large as the keepers of the mystic cup, believed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper and the container of blood shed by Christ on the cross. A blue-winged angel, sweet but firm, bars the door of the chapel containing the grail to Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine, knights unfit to enter. Burne-Jones described these knights as "eaten up by the world - handsome gentlemen set on this world's glory". Arthurian versions of the late Victorian cad.
In the culminating San Graal episode, 'The Attainment', there are two groups of these angels, all central to the action. Three authoritative angels, robed and bearing sword and staffs, keep Sir Bors and Sir Percival well outside the chapel, permitted to view the grail only from afar. Three more angels are seated inside, behind the altar, waiting to welcome the pure-in-heart Sir Galahad. This was the period when Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana, was entering local politics, standing for election in Rottingdean, Sussex. Many of Burne-Jones's angels have a look of Georgiana. In the San Graal tapestries it is these confident, winged beauties, like celestial policewomen, who have the upper hand.
The ultimate Christmas carol angel is the one in 'Adoration of the Magi', originally designed by Burne-Jones as a tapestry for Exeter College, Oxford, and since then reproduced on many million Christmas cards. The Adoration proved the most commercially successful of all Morris & Co tapestries, eight versions being eventually woven, one of which is now in Eton College Chapel, one in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, and one in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Burne-Jones also made a large-scale watercolour painting of the subject, which was given the new title 'The Star of Bethlehem'. He laboured on it 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". Interrogated by a bold young girl as to whether he believed in the scene he had depicted in 'The Star of Bethlehem', he replied: "It is too beautiful not to be true."
All his life he adored angels with much of the intensity with which he worshipped women. They were central to his oeuvre and his philosophy of wonder. He worked them and reworked them in the outlandish feathery splendour that could sometimes make them look a bit Folies Bergère. A famous photographic portrait taken by Barbara Leighton at the time he was working on 'The Star of Bethlehem' shows the elderly artist balanced on the ladder with his huge resplendent Christmas angel in the background. It seems as if Burne-Jones is about to be swept up in her great wings to join the heavenly host. - Fiona MacCarthy
from the Guardian
1. A card from Carlisle Mind
2. The Annunciation
3. Angeli Laudantes
4. Angeli Ministrantes
5. The Attainment (detail)
6. Adoration of the Magi (detail)
7. Barbara Leighton Sotheby - Sir Edward Burne-Jones