The great dreamer Edward Burne-Jones

The works of one of the last Pre-Raphaelites amaze not only with their rich variety, as they include painting, tapestry and stained glass, but also with their special, enigmatic beauty.

Born in the industrial city of Birmingham, Burne-Jones witnessed the strong development of Britain in the XIX. century, its large-scale industry and flourishing materialism. His answer to that was – supernatural beauty. He dedicated his life to the ideal of Beauty and sought to transfer it to everyday life.

I have no political conviction and no party and no special hope; only this is true: that beauty is very beautiful, that it softens, comforts, inspires, excites and uplifts, and never betrays.

He was born with a great artistic gift, so without a formal art education he drew with great speed and skill already in high school.

After an artistic trip to France with a close friend William Morris with whom he shared the same views and interests, he left the study of theology at Oxford University to devote himself to art. After Oxford he moved to London where his mentor was the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The shaping of his talent was significantly influenced by Italian Renaissance masters.

His first great success came with an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, when he presented his works Days of Creation (1870-1876), Seduction of Merlin (1872-1877) and Venus Mirror (1875). From then until his death, he was increasingly considered a great English painter.

Inspired by classical and medieval myths, Burne-Jones became part of a knightly renaissance. His works are imbued with the idea of ​​the search for the Holy Grail and bring us in an extremely vivid and convincing way depictions of Arthurian legends. One of his last great works, Love and the Pilgrim (1896-1897), beautifully depicts the difficulties of the quest, its thorny path and the angel that leads, heals and liberates – Love. The Perseus cycle, with its colors, gloomy background and dynamic shapes, conveys incredibly well the dangers of the hero’s journey, the magnitude of his task and the courage to fight the monster Medusa. The artistic liveliness is the result not only of his mastery but also of his knowledge and understanding of symbolism.

That is why his works suggest that the artist has access to the invisible dimension, but also the ability to present it to those who live in this material world. The feeling of amazement and admiration present further enriched his works with a depth that continues to enchant.

Burne-Jones, also called the last Pre-Raphaelite, is a bridge between Victorian and modern times. He left a lasting impression on symbolist painters, influencing Munch, Klimt and the early Picasso. Its design helped shape the Art Nouveau. But above all, he brought back to life the wisdom of ancient legends, thanks to which we can experience and develop them again through that contact with eternal reality.

In the cycle of Perseus paintings, Edward Burne-Jones presents key elements of the Greek myth of the hero Perseus. Under the strong influence of Thomas Malory’s book, The Death of King Arthur, he was often preoccupied with the medieval ideals of chivalry and courtly love in his artistic work. Therefore, by choosing Perseus as a theme, he was able to combine the main artistic ideals of his work.

Perseus, the son of Danae and Zeus, for the hospitality given to him and his mother, was given an almost unsolvable task by King Polydectus – to bring him the head of the terrible Medusa, which petrified people with its eerie gaze. In preparing for the venture, the goddess of wisdom Athena comes to his aid, giving him a shield / mirror in which he could see Medusa’s reflection without petrifying him, and the messenger of the gods Hermes, who arms him with a sharp sickle. The picture shows the part from the myth in which the nymphs give him Hades’ helmet that made him invisible, sandals with wings and a magic bag that was shrinking and increasing, in which he was supposed to bring Medusa’s head. The myth is dominated by the power of Medusa’s head, which he overcomes and becomes a hero. On his return from the task, he performs several heroic deeds and meets the beautiful Andromeda, whom he saves from the sea monster…

The last painting from the Perseus cycle, called The Ominous Head, depicts Perseus and Andromeda in a beautiful garden with fruit-filled trees. Recalling the danger and temptation he went through on his heroic journey, Perseus shows Andromeda a reflection of Medusa’s head. The idyllic surroundings and warm colors confirm the happy ending of the story and make a welcome contrast to the heavy, dark tone of the previous images.

The painting of the Golden Staircase, oil on canvas, is the first of Burne-Jones’ works of large dimensions. Painted in a Renaissance manner, the work was inspired by one of his travels in Italy.

Golden Stairs (1880). 269 ​​x 117 cm. Tate Gallery. London
Golden Stairs (1880). 269 ​​x 117 cm. Tate Gallery. London

The Golden Stairs are a step away from his usual thematic circle in which he creates poetic-mystical compositions inspired by mythology, the Bible, legends and literary sources. The painting has no mythological or literary source, but the connection between the painting and the music is obvious. The author changed his mind to call it Music on the Stairs / Royal Music / Royal Wedding, but opted for the Golden Stairs.

In many of his works, there is a musical theme that serves to introduce moods and symbolic elements that give the paintings an overtone of the unspeakable otherworld.

The music is evoked by painted instruments, but also by the harmonious movements of young girls with angelic faces descending a winding staircase as if in a dream. The staircase seems to play the role of a tonal scale: ethereal barefoot female figures of equal height alternate in renaissance dresses of silver and gold tones. It is as if with their trumpets and harps they descend into the earthly world to announce or announce something, which is complemented by the vertical composition of the image. The beautiful and harmonious relationship that exists between the characters, their movements and architecture also evokes a beautiful and harmonious tone and forms a masterfully rounded whole woven from the harmony of white, gold and silver.

The painting exudes poetic beauty and, as the ultimate expression of aestheticism, is identified with the Aesthetic Movement, ie the artistic revival that was at its peak at the time. The movement “chose three emblems, not accidentally and not without reflection, but with intent, of course, and these are: Purity, Beauty and Perseverance.” (The Estetic Movement in England, Walter Hamilton). At the same time, the central love is for the beautiful, with an emphasis on “the realization of that beauty in art that nature abounds in.”

The Golden Stairs is one of the greatest achievements of Burne-Jones in which the vision of the ideal of beauty as order and harmony is shown timelessly.

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