Burne Jones's wood engravings show the artist's skill at arranging many figures gracefully, even in a severely flattened picture plane. Boethius De Consolatione Philosophie from The Kelmscott Chaucer incorporates five human forms in a very small space without confusion or a crowded appearance. Three female figures stand side to side with linked hands. A forth figure descends a staircase to the right, almost exactly in line with the others. Slightly behind, a male figure lies propped up in bed. His torso fits neatly in the space to the left of the women. All five are evenly spaced, almost conspicuously so. The three standing women are almost identical, with similar hair and clothing. Burne-Jones adds visual interest by varying their poses: the central figure turns away from the viewer. However, all three women and the forth standing figure tilt their heads to the left at the same angle, connecting them and creating a pattern of (imperfect) translational symmetry.
This tableau is closed in by three walls, which prevent the creation of depth and define a shallow visual space. Burne-Jones paints a book on a stand to the left in mild perspective, foreshortening it, but the rest of the scene could be read in two dimensions, from left to right or right to left.
The figures in Boethius De Consolatione Philosophie, especially the three women, resemble a relief sculpture that might decorate an architectural frieze. Similar figural groups exist in Burne-Jones's other works, such as Laus Veneris and The Mirror of Venus, though the effect is less pronounced in the two oil paintings. Why might the artist have used this technique? Does translational symmetry have a symbolic significance?
Burne-Jones rendered all the drapery in stiff and angular folds that create a feeling of rigidity. The medium (wood engraving) surely influenced this style, but why might the artist have exaggerated the angularity of the folds of cloth? Do we see this in any of his paintings?
How does Burne-Jones work with space and depth differently in his other illustrations for The Kelmscott Chaucer?
The figures in the Boethius illustration are (to varying degrees) androgynous. Is this a conscious choice? An accident of style or skill?
Is there evidence in the body of Burne-Jones's other work to support either judgment?
Last modified 25 October 2006