Sir Edward Burne-Jones presents an ambiguous scene in his 1880 painting, The Golden Stairs. The sharply vertical composition accentuates a winding staircase, upon which eighteen fair ladies descend, carrying various instruments and wearing archaic dresses favored by the artist. As Christopher Wood points out, The Golden Stairs exemplifies the artist's mature style with its lack of narrative detail and its emphasis on formal and classical treatment of line and design (Wood 121). There exists an obvious lack of clarity as to what the purpose and destination might be for the descending ladies, despite the apparent mood of joviality and sisterhood. Several visual indicators might encourage the viewer to interpret the scene as a result of Burne-Jones's Catholic influence, such as the verticality and pearly-gold coloring of the staircase that suggests divinity. The doves perched on the Italian-styled roof may be associated with the Holy Ghost, but the human bodies represented discourage the viewer from being completely convinced of the religious subject. Portrayed and referring to the androgynous angels that appear in Leonardo da Vinci's religious paintings, they lack only wings and a halo for the viewer to assume they are descending to the material world with their trumpets and harps for some holy annunciation or heralding. In addition, the timeless quality fostered in the painting disables the viewer from applying a specific and geographical context. The archaic dress, ethereal palette, and apparent classical influence recognizable in the controposto and frieze — like positioning of the figures, encourage the timeless, even surreal theme of the painting. This ensures that while the viewer may not recognize time and place, they might easily recognize the deliberate reference to something other — worldly, whether religious or fantastic.
1. What other reference, if not religious, might this painting make? Most of Burne -- Jones's works are derived from Arthurian legends and mythology. Could this painting be seen as a continuation of mythological subject matter?
2. The title and the figures come across to the viewer as ambiguous with the exclusion of wings and the vague title. Wood describes the work as reminiscent of Italian altarpieces, due specifically to the upright construction of the canvas. If this painting is designed to echo religious altarpieces, both through the design of the canvas and the reference to Leonardesque figures, why might the artist purposefully deny the work clarification?
3. A small sliver of sky is perceivable above the terra cotta tiles. Below the staircase, a tree grows. While possibly interpretable as a separation between the heavens above and the earth below, why then does the artist choose an Italian villa to insert the staircase?
Waters, Bill. Burne-Jones -- A Quest for Love: Works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt and Related Works by Contemporary Artists. London: Peter Nahum, 1993.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 29 October 2004