The Nativity

The Nativity

Designer: Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

Firm: Morris & Co.

Stained glass

1887-88

St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

Burne-Jones's Other Windows in the Cathedral

  • The Ascension
  • The Crucifixion
  • The West Window (The Last Judgment)
  • After J. A. Chatwin (1830-1907) had enlarged the church in 1883-84, the patron of the work, the wealthy heiress Emma Villiers-Wilkes, undertook to pay most of the cost of the stained glass for the three large windows in the new chancel. Edward Burne-Jones, who was born locally and had been baptised in the church, first agreed to design the central one, showing the Ascension. He was so pleased with it that a little later he offered to design the others as well, showing the Nativity and Crucifixion.

    Photographs, text and formatting 2012 by Jacqueline Banerjee.

    [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this UR or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on this and the following image for larger pictures.]

    Burne-Jones remembered being "carried out of myself with a sort of rapture," when he made the offer to design the other two windows, and said he hoped, "perhaps not unreasonably hoped, to make [the new ones] worthy of my former achievement" (qtd. in Georgiana Burne-Jones, Vol. 2: 172). The Nativity is to the left of the central window. In other words, it is the north-east window of the new chancel. [Commentary continues below.]

    Detail of the Nativity

    In this close-up of the The Nativity, Mary bends lovingly and reverently over her swaddled infant; as seen in the first picture, Joseph, with his sandals and staff, stsnds on the other side, his head bowed and his hands clasped as if in worship. This contrasts with the upper part of the window, where an angel, foremost of a heavenly host, announces the wonderful news to the shepherds. There, the background on the right is of dramatically wintry trees, and in the foreground are a whole flock of huddled sheep. The two scenes are separated by a span of stones, which also serves as the thatched roof of the manger. Burne-Jones chose the subjects himself, though in this case he was prevailed upon not to include cattle in the manger scene — amusingly, Mrs Villiers-Wilkes said "I wish the 'Nativity of Our Lord' not a Cattle Show'" (qtd. in Bradley 45).

    As Simon Bradley writes generally of these windows, "Colours are vibrant and exciting, with reds and blues predominant; designs are simple and dramatic, with a strong division between upper and lower zones, and with figures of exceptional scale" (45). In a spiritual sense, the division of zones is less distinct here than elsewhere, in that angels and human beings appear in both. Although many angels curve across the top, one of them in this part hovers very near the earth, with feet almost touching the shepherd's flock. Angels also hover low on the right side of the stable itself, adoring the new-born Christ. In this way, the mingling of earth and heaven is conveyed at this momentous juncture.

    Other stained glass depictions of the nativity by Burne-Jones

    References

    Bradley, Simon. "The Stained Glass." Birmingham, by Andy Foster. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. 45. Print.

    Burne-Jones, Georgiana. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. New York: Macmillan, 1906. Internet Archive. Web. 4 September 2012.


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    Last modified 4 September 2012