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Burne-Jones's Crucifixion

For Part I: Appreciating Stained Glass, click here.

For Part II: The Nativity, click here.


After leaving the shepherds and their encounter with the angels, we jump abruptly to the the theme of the Crucifixion, which is one of the most important images in art history.


From 9th century Metz, France

To 20th century Paris, France

From 8th century Xi’an, China

To 16th century Tǝgray, Ethiopia

The Crucifixion, or, without the corpus, the Cross, has been depicted across centuries, continents, and cultures. It can be worn in jewelry as a popular pious devotion, or it can be depicted in all the theological grandeur of the stained glass series in Birmingham Cathedral. The image is still ubiquitous, but as society becomes increasingly secularized, have we lost an understanding of its significance?


A quick review of the key tenets of Christianity: through the Fall, humanity separated itself from God’s perfect love. In sickness, pettiness, malevolence and death, we live with the consequences of the Fall in our everyday lives. Through the Nativity, God became man, setting into motion a series of events to restore what we lost in Eden. Through the Crucifixion, God offered Himself as a sacrifice, an atonement for the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Lastly, through the Resurrection, death itself is transformed. It is no longer the end of life, but a gateway to an eternal life with God. The Crucifixion is simultaneously an image of faith, hope and love, an affirmation of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.


Theology can excite the intellect, but relationships stir the heart. If Salvation came through the execution of an unknown person, whose teachings were lost, and whose encounters with other people went unrecorded, would Christianity have gained so many disciples across the far-flung corners of the world during the past two millennia? Probably not. It is not simply the theology of redemption that makes the Crucifixion such a powerful image; it is the person being crucified. Just like Masaccio’s fresco The Expulsion of Adam and Eve provided the backstory to the Nativity, the backstory to the Crucifixion is Jesus’s life on earth.

To illustrate its powerful appeal, I will turn to a very unlikely source: Monty Python.


Seriously?


Before you close the tab, allow me to explain. Some three decades ago, when I was studying in England, I spent Christmas in my mother’s hometown in Järvsö, Sweden. Tired after a long day of communicating in a language in which I was not terribly proficient, I scanned the four channels on the television. I was grateful that there was one program in English – particularly grateful as it was a documentary on Monty Python, whose comedy I enjoy.


Eric Idle recounted the creation of The Life of Brian. They set out to do the most outrageous project then imaginable – parodying the life of Jesus Christ. They did their homework, read the four gospel narratives, but hit a brick wall. They found it impossible to parody Jesus Christ Himself. Dimwitted misunderstanding, yes; religious conformity, absolutely; religious hypocrisy, certainly. But not the individual encountered in the Gospels. (1)


Why couldn’t the most irreverent, iconoclastic troupe of its day parody the earthly life of Jesus? I suspect a clue can be found in the First Letter of John which describes the nature of God: “God is love” (4:7). This formulation may sound like a lofty abstraction, but in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’s life, love becomes embodied. Love is a person with a purpose - to restore what humanity lost in the Fall. Even if modern sensibilities remain skeptical of the miracles recounted in the Gospels, it is hard to parody Jesus’s intent in performing them - to point to a future when every tear shed over every infirmity shall be washed away.

Even if modern sensibilities recoil from the word sin, it is hard to parody forgiveness for our failings. Redemption entails liberation– breaking the bondage caused by our own weakness of character. Redemption should, in turn, lead to compassion, empathizing with people who struggle with their own shortcomings.


Lastly, how does one honestly parody Jesus’s teachings on “The Kingdom of Heaven” without reflecting upon our own priorities and how they are at times so often clearly misplaced? Why do we vainly obsess over our social media presence? How is our attachment to material possessions in any way healthy? Why do we seek salvation in politics, manipulated by self-idolizing schemers who seek power? True love is hard to parody. The image of the Crucifixion is remains powerful because “no greater love has this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 16:13)


In the Crucifixion panel of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris sought to match the monumentality of the theology with an ambitious artistic composition. To achieve the full potential of stained glass against the eastern sunlight, they wanted a multiplicity of figures. There are more than thirty. In the foreground are the mourning friends of Jesus. St. John is the only apostle present; the others have either fled, or, in the case of Judas, betrayed Christ. St. John looks upward towards Jesus from one side of the cross, while Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary’s sister, and Mary of Cleopas look upward from the other. Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross, weeping in anguish.

Compositionally, she anchors the bottom of the scene, balancing the upward gazes of the other figures. Unlike the depiction of the Roman soldiers and the other onlookers, colors abound in this group. Notice the lush green in St. John’s garment.

The wonderful photos of Seraphim Press capture not only the beautiful blues and purple of the group on the left, but also the delicate folds in their headdresses.

Whereas in the Nativity the color red radiated from the angels, in the Crucifixion the color assumes a more sinister connotation, emanating from the robes, helmets and banners of the Roman soldiers overseeing the execution. Positioned in the midground, they display a variety of emotions. Longinus seems determined as he prepares to pierce the side of Jesus to see if he is dead.

Two soldiers on the left, however, converse more solemnly about what they are witnessing.

Finally, in the background, onlookers with white headdresses observe the Crucifixion.


As I discussed previously, the vertical nature of ecclesial stained glass windows presents a compositional challenge. In the Nativity, Burne-Jones simply constructed two scenes, one on top of the other. In the Crucifixion, the cityscape of Jerusalem creates a visual line separating the multitude from the central figure of Christ on the cross. Filling the space beside him are the red banners of the Roman soldiers.


There are some details worth exploring. Consistent with the pre-Raphaelite interest in Nature, the grain of the wood is meticulously rendered. On close inspection, the meager loincloth is decorated with an elegant foliate pattern.


Note the irregular dimensions of the blue glass panes forming the sky. A mosaic effect has been created. The clouds are in some ways similar to the sixth century apse mosaic of the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damien in Rome. Burne-Jones would have undoubtedly become familiar with this image in preparation for the design of the apse mosaic of Saint Paul within the Walls, the first Protestant church in Rome, which was completed in 1880. One wonderful aspect of pre-Raphaelite art is the creative interplay between various media – painting, furniture, textiles, glass, mosaics, book printing and even wallpaper.



One curious attribute of the figure of Christ: there is no trace of blood from the crowning of thorns, the nailing to the cross or the Flagellation. There is no theological significance to this omission; it was simply a condition of the patron commissioning the stained glass. A series of letters between the architect Julius Alfred Chatwin, the eccentric patron, Ms. Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes, and William Morris reveals a somewhat dysfunctional, albeit humorous, process for deciding aspects of the composition. The somewhat imperious Villiers-Wilkes would make her wishes known to Chatwin, who would sanitize them in his letters to Morris, who would in turn raise Burne-Jones’s objections to Chatwin, who was then left to resolve these issues with Villiers-Wilkes. In addition to her prohibition of any sort of “Cattle-Show” in the Nativity, Villiers-Wilkes wrote to Chatwin on November 27, 1886 that she wanted the Crucifixion “to be as little dreadful looking as possible…[I will] leave it to Mr. Burne-Jones who I feel confident will not treat it like the ordinary dreadful looking prints I always see.” (2)


There is one final detail that deserves closer attention. Amongst the thirty figures witnessing Christ’s death is a balding man with an angular forehead. He is aging and has a small well-trimmed beard – quite different from the bushier unkempt beards of the other onlookers. He wears neither a headdress nor the helmet of a Roman soldier. He looks upward solemnly at the figure of Christ.

This individual bears more than a passing resemblance to the artist himself:

The convention of artists including themselves in their own compositions is hardly new. Michelangelo depicted himself in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement from the Sistine Chapel. Raphael included himself in a much less gruesome manner in the School of Athens.


Assuming this identification of Burne-Jones is, in fact, correct, how might it affect our interpretation of this artwork? Dr. Colette Crossman notes that historically, there were two very divergent approaches in the commentary on Burne-Jones’s works. One strand began during Burne-Jones’s lifetime. Individuals would treat his works as tools for religious instruction and emphasize the artist’s own Christian faith. Elements of this approach are apparent in my own writings on Burne-Jones. My intention is not primarily catechetical, however. Any art historical treatment of these windows should convey how a religiously minded viewer may have related to the images emotionally and intellectually. Recall Abbot Suger’s writings: enhancing a relationship with God is the very purpose of religious stained glass.


With the second approach, Dr. Crossman writes, “art historians continue to focus on the perceived avant-gardism and proto-abstraction of Burne-Jones’s aestheticism and symbolism in efforts to legitimize his place in the modernist canon…[H]istorians of Victorian art still routinely cast the period as one of precipitous religious decline. Burne-Jones has appeared to exemplify this picture of lost faith and religious indifference.” (3) In fairness to this position, one might point to the fact that Burne-Jones rarely attended Sunday services after he left his studies at Oxford. Furthermore, Burne-Jones’s personal life would not at times be considered a model of Christian virtue. Nevertheless, it is precisely the aging artist’s awareness of this fact that may have led him to depict himself as a witness of the Crucifixion, the crucial event in humanity’s redemption.


Burne-Jones’s religious beliefs certainly defy easy characterization. One detail about his life that I find fascinating is what his wife described as “the reverence that Edward felt for this martyr of our own time,” Father Damien of Molokai. (4) The Belgian priest, declared a saint in the Catholic Church, dedicated his life to caring for individuals suffering from leprosy who had been exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai. When exiled to Molokai, an individual with leprosy was declared legally dead. With their squalid living conditions and lack of any medical attention, their physical state would soon catch up with their legal status. Although his personality was not always agreeable, Father Damien treated the lepers as people created in the likeness and image of God. He cared for their spiritual and medical needs, organized sanitary projects, and raised money for housing and supplies. But most crucially, he dwelt among those he served; to affirm their humanity, he ate with them and was never afraid to be touched by them. This closeness led to him catching the disease and ultimately led to his death in 1889 at the age of 49.


Burne-Jones was captivated by Father Damien’s efforts and painted a watercolor of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata as a gift for the priest in 1887. Father Damien, in turn, thanked Burne-Jones with a blessing. “This note,” his wife recounted, “together with a spray of fern from the island and a photograph from a sketch that Mr. Clifford made of the poor marred face, was framed by Edward and stood always opposite the foot of his bed.” (5) Why would a leader of an art movement devoted to aesthetics and beauty keep an image of a man whose face was disfigured by leprosy at the foot of his bed? “I couldn’t be good like that and live with lepers,” lamented Edward Burne-Jones. Perhaps on a psychological level, he cherished the blessing because it affirmed the spiritual dimension of Burne-Jones’s vocation as an artist. This identity was genuinely important to him: “There’s a lump of greasy pigment at the end of Michael Angelo’s hogbristle brush,” he once said, “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.“

Left: Father Damien at the age of 33, just prior to departing to Molokai. Right: Father Damien at 49, a few months prior to his death.


But on a deeper level, I suspect Burne-Jones saw in the image of Father Damien a reflection of the Crucifixion. Ms. Villers-Wilkes’s sensibilities notwithstanding, there can be a profound beauty in a dreadful image when viewed through a divine lens. Father Damien radically embraced the example of the Cross, sacrificing his own life for the spiritual and physical care of others. Provided my identification is correct, Burne-Jones depicted himself as present at the Crucifixion – not a witness to the actual event, but as a witness to its significance and meaning. We cannot forget his connection to St. Philip’s: “in that very Church at the tender age of a few weeks I was enlisted amongst the rank and file of the Church.” He was not simply making God manifest at the place of his own spiritual birth; he was testifying to his own solemn appreciation of Christ on the Cross. Through this sacrifice, humanity was redeemed and the significance of mortal death itself became transformed into a pathway to eternal life.


I hope you have enjoyed my reflections on Burne-Jones’s stained glass series, and thank you for indulging my somewhat catechetical tone. The Nativity and The Crucifixion are two of the most important and frequently depicted images in art history. Without illumination, the images of the stained glass windows are dead. Without explication, the meaning of those images would likewise remain obscure.



Notes:

(1) Years later, I found the documentary, which was called “Life of Python.” Idle said that they “realized that you can’t in fact actually make fun of JC [Jesus Christ], because he is actually saying quite good things.” When tracking down that source, I stumbled across another one – an interview with Michael Palin where he says something similar: “But the more we read about Jesus and the background to his life, it was obvious that there was very little we could ridicule about Jesus’s life…Jesus was a very straight direct man, making very good sense.” See here. [Return to text.]

(2) See Joe Hunt, “Miss Wilkes’s Windows,” Pre-Raphaelite Society Review, Volume VI, Numbers 2 and 3, 1998. [Return to text.]

(3) Colette Crossman, “Seeing the Sacred: Burne-Jones’s Reception as a ‘Great Religious Painter’,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 14, no. 2 (Summer 2015), http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/summer15/crossman-on-burne-jones-s-reception-as-a-great-religious-painter (accessed February 7, 2021). [Return to text.]

(4) Georgiana Burne-Jones, Remembrances, Chapter XXII. Available in the public domain. Subsequent quote about Michelangelo taken from Chapter XXV; on the significance of St. Philip's, Chapter 21. [Return to text.]

(5) Edward Clifford was portraitist who visited Father Damien and brought with him Burne-Jones’s watercolor. [Return to text.]



Notes on the images:


The Crucifixion, Carolingian, 860-870 AD, ivory plaquette, Victorian and Albert Museum, 250-1867. For more information, go here.


The Crucifixion, Georges Rouault, 1936, color aquatint, Art Institute of Chicago, 1947.691, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. For more information, go here.


The Xi'an Stele, 781, Beilin Museum. Image found here.


Ethiopian Gospels, first half of the 16th century AD, parchment, Walters Art Museum, W.850. Catalogue entry can be found here.


Christ and the Widow of Nain, Walter Crane and Lewis Forman, 1891, Christchurch, Streatham. Description can be found here.


The Crucifixion, Edward Burne-Jones, St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham. Photo copyright Alaister Carew-Cox. For more information on Seraphim Press's publications and worthy projects, can be found here and here.


Portrait of Edward Burne-Jones, Alfred James Philpott, 1885, photograph, National Portrait Gallery (London), NPG x82208. For more information, visit here. The photograph was taken three years before the Crucifixion was created.

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