Over his career Sir Edward Burne-Jones rendered a number of Nativity images, using a diverse range of artistic mediums from chalk to stained glass; but perhaps his most striking scene is The Nativity painted with Gouache in 1887. Conceived as a study for an eventual stained glass window, the painting differs quite remarkably from its successor, though only in the choice of its color scheme. The window employs a vivid red, shades of brown, elements of grey and blue, the general vividness of the palette overshadowing in part the peculiarities of the image's composition. Yet the entire painting uses only subtle shades of blue, imparting an eerie celestial quality to the scene. And though one might expect the figures and scenery to blur together from the lack of color variation, in fact the result is that the different parts adopt new meaning as the components of a larger unity. In the silvery-blue monochrome, the angelic host conveys a strong likeness to the nearby trees, the figures peering in such a way that they seem to form an archway with the branches opposite them. The angels seem not to constitute Jacob's heavenly ladder, nor the great legions envisioned by the shepherds near Bethlehem, but more of something out of Alice and Wonderland, the divine figures blending with the dark and earthly qualities of the forest to fashion a portal perhaps to another life.

Likewise the shepherds offer a close parallel to the magi just beneath them, the former three gazing up at the angels and the latter three looking down at the infant Christ. Along with the haloes of the magi and the holy couple, which balance the haloes of the angels in the opposite corner, this contributes to a duality of the scene, with the divine presence of Christ in the lower image linked to the divine presence of God, through his messengers, in the upper part. Indeed a divine presence seems to permeate the whole painting, each sheep, each tree and shepherd illuminated with the same blue aura as the holy infant. The stained glass version loses some of these parallels, the red angels clearly distinct from the forest, the shepherds are cloaked in multi-colored garb, and the neutral coloring of Christ renders him the most fleshly and mortal of the figures present.

This figure of Christ — in both versions of the work — begs especial notice. He lies not in a manger bed, but at the entrance of a small cave, stressing the tie between the divine and nature, between the grace of heaven and the eerie wildness of the forest. Additionally, Burne-Jones paints Christ as quite a small child, small beyond proportion to the other figures in the scene. He does not even feature near the center of the image, but is allocated to the very bottom edge. The knowledge of his presence carries much more weight than the actual rendering of his form, the other characters visually much more imposing than the divine child.

Questions

1. The image combines two scenes — the visitation of the magi, and the angels' announcement to the shepherds. How does the composition of the painting integrate the two scenes, and which is of greater prominence?

2. The sheep occupy an interesting position, standing in great density at the feet of the angels and at the perimeter of the woods. Does the visual representation of the sheep comment on or synthesize the many occurrences of sheep in the Bible — Jesus the lamb of God, God the divine shepherd, the Passover Lamb, etc.?

3. Of all the mortal figures, Mary is perhaps the most angelic, haloed and posed over the Christ child in much the same way that the angels pose. Yet Joseph and the magi too have halos, and the shepherds stand in extreme proximity to the angels. How does the painting deal with the questions of divine and mortal, of the heavenly and the earthly?

4. How does this painting compare with more traditional depictions of the Nativity? And how do the elements of a more individual style compare with other paintings by Burne-Jones?


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Last modified 5 November 2006