Burne-Jones's The Heart of the Rose functions as the culmination of a journey begun in The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness, a culmination that presents the viewer with an ambiguous message about romantic love. The subject matter of the trilogy or triptych comes from the English version of the medieval French allegorical poem, Roman de la Rose in which the Lover quests for the Rose in a supernatural garden. In Burne-Jones's series, a personified Love escorts the Pilgrim from The Gate of Idleness, through a gray, eerie landscape in Love Leading the Pilgrim, and eventually brings him to his goal in The Heart of the Rose. The use of medieval subject matter and the love-related themes are typical of Burne-Jones's work. The medieval-esque nature of the painting is heightened by an intense, contrasting color scheme and strong lines that shape the exteriors and interiors of the figures. The entire work bears a marked resemblance to stained glass, a medium in which Burne-Jones worked prolifically.
Thematically, the painting presents the viewer with a complex statement about love. Bill Waters articulately expresses this statement by explaining that, for Burne-Jones, the rose
came to symbolize his experience of love which brought both pleasure and pain — the pleasure in an idealized loved one which simultaneously brought about feelings of despair and ultimate loss...although the Pilgrim is presented directly to the Rose by Love, she still remains unfathomable — a distant and elusive figure, her physical beauty his only reward.
The viewer can see this aspect of unattainability in the posture of the Pilgrim, who stands hunched over and exhausted in front of his desired object, still leaning heavily on Love's hand. The Rose herself gazes at him sympathetically, almost pityingly, but continues to recline on her throne of flowering bushes, and one of Love's black wings obscures a small portion of her head. Triumph intertwines with hopelessness.
1. The deep green dress of the Rose causes her body to meld into foliage of her floral throne, making her appear as though she is part of the vegetation herself. Besides the obvious allusions to the woman as an actual rose, are there other reasons why Burne-Jones might have wanted to blend her body into the plants?
2. The painting's resemblance to stained glass, the depiction of Love as a sort of winged angel, and the fact that the questing figure is a pilgrim all recall religious imagery. However, the theme of the painting is clearly not religious. Does these typically religious images make the painting more or less effective? To a modern viewer? What about a Victorian viewer?
3. Another one of Burne-Jones's series painted ten years earlier than The Heart of the Rose, Pygmalion, shows a man on a quest for romance on a less literal level. By the end of Pygmalion, however, the lover truly reaches his goal, physically kissing Galatea, and the title of the work is even The Soul Attains. Are these two differing outcomes in the search for love reconcilable within Burne-Jones's work as a whole?
4. According to his contemporary, Henry James, Burne-Jones's work in later years became "'colder and colder' and 'less and less observed,' the pictures becoming almost 'abstractions'" (Wood 126). Do you see evidence of this observation in The Heart of the Rose?
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