Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knight

For the last forty years, Burne-Jones’ reputation has grown consistently; one could be forgiven for describing his current reputation as monumental. Our interest in him and the Pre-Raphaelites generally continues to grow, but are any new facts really coming out? The most recent biography of Burne-Jones is an excellent work which provides a thorough analysis and record of his life.1 Despite being an immensely readable and informative book, MacCarthy only spares reference to Burne-Jones’ engagement with religion across ten pages of a nearly seven hundred page book. She does however, acknowledge his early sense of religiosity, describing how ‘many of his friends…[considered] the Church as his natural destination’.2

Whilst this is no criticism of MacCarthy, it is interesting to note that we continually overlook much of Burne-Jones’ attitude toward religion. His glib often facetious comments such as ‘Belong to the Church of England? Put your head in a bag!’ are often used as a means of dis-affirming Burne-Jones’ religious nature and his apparent wish, late in life, to avoid having any association with formal religion, or indeed any form of religion.3 Isn’t this the act of hindsight, of retrospectively re-writing one’s own history? It certainly seems an attempt on Burne-Jones’ part to guide the future reception of his work, but can one ever really be aware of all that influences us? Can we categorically deny one influence more than another? Surely it is the job of any historian to utilise the much needed space of time, to attempt a more rational and objective interpretation. Whilst I dislike the consequences of any reading where one discounts the artist’s own objectives, values and declarations, an interpretation which accommodates Burne-Jones’ insistence that religion played little, if any part, in the formulation of his oeuvre seems just as incomplete. Can we really ignore the major impact of religion upon Burne-Jones’ art? Works such as The Golden Stairs(1880) are continually assigned to Aestheticism and whilst this interpretation is clearly useful and valid, it acknowledges only one aspect within the work. Surely the sense of a celestial spirit cannot be ignored when we consider the inclusion of white doves within the picture itself?

Burne-Jones worked and lived at a time when religion was relevant to all levels of British society; it affected personal habits and political decisions, and impacted everything from the way science was explored to infant burial practices. By virtue of inhabiting Victorian society, Burne-Jones was not immune to it. He was a part of the main and many of his responses to life are ensconced within a religious framework, whether accepting or rejecting it. For example, we know that one trip he took with Morris to Rouen, determined both their future careers within the arts. This ‘fact’ is often viewed as evidence that they both turned their backs upon religion, rather than viewed as evidence that religion was responsible for turning Burne-Jones toward art. The difference is subtle but one explanation includes understanding the art of Burne-Jones was inclusive of religion whereas the other interpretation considers religion as excluded from that point in his life onward.

Burne-Jones remained rather isolated throughout his career; he worked for long periods of time in a manner which often resulted in exhaustion and occasionally made him bed bound.4 He preferred limited and select company, frequently resisting invitations to dinners and society events. As far as possible, Burne-Jones tried to ensure his world was an interior one, which was fleshed out by occasional visitors and conversations with highly respected friends like William Morris or the much underrated Thomas Rooke (his studio assistant). Rooke himself was often directed to discuss events, news or retell entire books for the pleasure and education of Burne-Jones. This type of selective filtering is further evidence that Burne-Jones functioned within the confines of Victorian society, and ultimately of the higher cultural echelons of that very society. So despite his proclamations that he worked and breathed in a purely interior world, I do not accept that Burne-Jones was able to produce his art in isolation from the issues which that society was encountering. The themes with which he engaged were a part of the cultural continent he inhabited, and in doing so he always remained part of the mainland, whether he wished it so or not. One important example of this contemporary cultural interaction is Burne-Jones’ highly selective engagement with artistic precedents, e.g. the work of Botticelli or Fra Angelico. As such, the themes of connection and universality become central to his creation of a private space, whilst acknowledging his contemporary alignment with the society he inhabited. This framework explains my approach to interpreting works such as The Merciful Knight which I will discuss within this paper.

* * *

In the1850s, when Burne-Jones was in his twenties, it ‘was scarcely possible for middle-class young men not to be caught up by the shifting currents of religious controversy.’5 Burne-Jones was no exception and though he often conveyed his upbringing as being poor, there were still funds enough to attend Oxford University. Although Burne-Jones never completed a degree, his experiences at Oxford significantly imprinted upon the outline of his future, not only in his decisive pursuit of art but via introduction to influential works by John Henry Newman.6

Twenty years prior to Burne-Jones’ arrival, Oxford intellectuals, like Newman, had debated and contested the structure of the Church of England. The many written Tracts and debates which rang throughout Oxford contributed to a reformulation of the practice of faith, in terms of ritual, as well as being a direct challenge to the existing power structures within the Anglican Church, from members within the Church itself.

Gradually, via the influences from the Oxford Movement, the Anglican Church began to demonstrate a Romanism which extended to greater inclusion of liturgy and ceremony. This invariably appealed to the youthful Pre-Raphaelites in their search for something colourful, yet spiritual. Burne-Jones declared himself a ‘Romanist’ and certainly responded to the ceremonial and ritualistic flavour increasingly found within Anglicanism, certainly more so than in the Evangelicalism of his childhood.7We shall see how this preference is evidenced through his thematic engagement with work by the Catholic artists of pre-Renaissance Italy, such as the intense piety that he recognised in the work of Fra Angelico.8

The concern with religion and conversion coloured many of the relationships during the early years of the brotherhood, e.g. Burne-Jones conversion to Anglicanism, Christina Rossetti’s engagement, Maria Rossetti’s joining an Anglican order, and Collinson’s veering between Catholicism and Anglicanism. Stanhope remained a devout Anglican throughout his life and Holman Hunt determined to seek a full and spiritual engagement with the world of the Bible and its physical past, whilst Christina was intimately acquainted with her copy of the King James Bible. These individual spiritual explorations within an increasingly Eucharistic Anglicanism are illustrative of MacCarthy’s description of the Oxford Movement as a ‘new religion for disaffected youth’.9 From the earliest examples of Pre-Raphaelite art and literature we encounter religious themes, whether it be as a celebration of the Virgin Mary or moralising upon sexual desire.

Burne-Jones’ works are only occasionally moralising, e.g. Merlin and Nimue, and in such circumstances there is usually an autobiographical hint of self-disapproval.10 Much of his work is easily ascribed to Mallorian themes but religious narratives frequently appear whether as designs for tiles or tapestries. One major piece of work was unveiled in 1885, which depicts the Heavenly Jerusalem.11 I believe the metaphor of the new city is one that yielded significant symbolism for Anglican Victorians, it is explored in great depth by Burne-Jones and Stanhope in what could be argued is their individual magna opera. The utilisation of this symbol will be discussed in greater depth later on but the point I wish to emphasise at this juncture is that church artwork was both significant, symbolic and intrinsically affiliated with Catholic art. The Pre-Raphaelite interest in the interchange between Catholicism and Anglicanism is explained by Frederic MacDonald (Burne-Jones brother-in-law) who described how the Oxford Movement had rediscovered the Middle Ages.12 This axes is what held Burne-Jones’ interest and why I turn now to his watercolour, The Merciful Knight (1863, Birmingham City Art Gallery, Birmingham)

* * *

The Broad Stone of Honour by Kenelm Digby is a largely forgotten text but one does not have to read much to recognise the numerous points of interest for artists such as Burne-Jones.13 Based on an 11th century legend the text tells of a Florentine Knight, John Gualbert, who forgives, rather than kills, when faced with the dilemma of seeking revenge. The scene takes place on Good Friday and as such explores concepts of Christian ideals, chivalric themes and notions of appropriate Gentlemanly / courtly behaviour. ‘The intention of Digby in The Broadstone was to demonstrate the greatness and [to] display the beauty of the Catholic Church through the centuries’ and as such it remains an interesting choice of text for depiction.14

As with all of Burne-Jones’ works the initial commencement of the painting is difficult to discern but it was certainly complete by 1863 and as such is considered one of his earlier works.15 During his 1859 or 1862 trip to Italy, it is reasonable to assume Burne-Jones saw di Bicci’s depiction of the same legend and although there is no visual parity between the two examples, there can be little doubt that a Florentine interpretation of a Romanist legend would have consolidated his own responses to Digby’s text.16 Burne-Jones is recorded as saying ‘that people like the old being represented, not a new idea’ and the nexus of medieval literature and painting must have appealed a great deal to his view of the world.17

The work was exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) in 1864 where it was ‘skied’ in the hope no-one would see it, such was its unearthly and unwelcome character. 18 The painting is a crucial early work which demonstrates a ‘turning point from Burne-Jones’ tentative beginnings towards the paintings of his full maturity’. What is key about this work is not just the unearthly character but the ‘peculiar immediacy, [and] the urgent realism’ which MacCarthy astutely recognises stems from earlier Pre-Raphaelite works.19

Burne-Jones own inscription describes ‘a knight who forgave his enemy when he might have destroyed him and how the image of Christ kissed him in token that his acts had pleased God.’20 The preparatory sketches show careful consideration was given to the gesture of Christ toward the knight.21 The final work is distinctly humble. We watch Christ bestow a blessing on the Knight in a way which is paternal and comforting. The manner in which his arms reach around the Knight is a recognition of his earlier deed and the title itself directs us as to the mercy of Christ and the mercy the Knight demonstrated.22 To focus on a subject so intrinsically connected with the Christian Calendar implies a Christian attitude, particularly when we know Burne-Jones himself considered the piece one of his best early works. The themes within the text certainly offer a neat intersection with Burne-Jones’ ideas, for it combines his love of all things Christian and medieval. ‘I couldn’t do without Medieval Christianity. The central idea of it and all it has gathered to itself made the Europe that I exist in. The enthusiasm and devotion, the learning and the art, the humanity and Romance, the self denial and splendid achievement that the human race can never be deprived of, except by a cataclysm that would all but destroy man himself, all belong to it’.23

This lyrical and high minded attitude is typical of those T.M. Rooke recorded in the last few years of Burne-Jones’ life. However, this painting is evidence that this attitude was long held. To any Christian, Good Friday is a bitter sweet celebration. The recognition and word of God is held up for all humanity to bear witness to, whilst the final act is an annihilation of the very gift God has sent. The final day of Christ’s life is the torture and crucifixion he endured for the sake of humanity. In an almost parable like way, the Legend of St. John Gualbert, reminds us that we should exercise mercy and humility. The benevolent, outward giving (forgiving) of the Christ figure toward the Knight is a reflection of his internal dilemma when he forgave the man in question. The cycle of forgiveness, the ongoing repetition of Christian salvation.

The sense of reveal is amplified by the removal of the Knight’s helmet, just as the sense of humility is heightened by the ramshackle outdoor shrine. Three angels watch from each of the corners of the chapel. The fourth is missing, is this a technical design decision to secure light on the scene? Or does this missing angel have more significance? Who is the figure in the background? Is there a sense of mission being carried out, of the divine having now permanently and physically entered the earthly realm?

1 See Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012)

2 Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 21and 22

3 Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by His Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers, 1982) pg. 27

4 Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 87

6 Newman’s writings profoundly affected the undergraduate. See both Lago, page 177 or Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones Vol I (London: MacMillan and Co, 1904) pg 71.

7 Letter from Burne-Jones to Mary Gladstone Drew, 15 December, 1890. Transcript. Fitzwilliam.

8 Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by His Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers, 1982) pg. 130

9 Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 21and 22

10 There are a handful of works which seem to explore Burne-Jones’ affair with Maria Zambaco.

11 In 1885, Burne-Jones’ design ‘The Heavenly Jerusalem’ for St. Pauls Within-the-Walls, American Church, Rome was unveiled. ‘Not least of the attractions for Burne-Jones the Italophile was that this was a commission for Rome.’ Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 33.

12 Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination(London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 21and 22

13 The text was first published in 1822, then published as four constituent parts before being republished as The Broad Stone of Honour in 1844.

15 Burne-Jones tried to borrow this work in 1894 (4 years before his death) to make it into a large oil painting. This plan did not come to fruition.

16 The di Bicci work is housed in Santa Trinita, Florence.

17 Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by His Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers, 1982) pg. to confirm.

18 Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by His Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers, 1982) pg. 107

19 Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 2012) pg. 168

20 http://www.bmagic.org.uk

Accessed 24/04/13 at 22:12

21 Three examples of which can be found in The Tate, London.

22 See Christopher Wood, Burne-Jones (London: Phoenix Illustrated, 1997) for entry on this painting.

23 Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by His Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers, 1982) pg. 27

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