The Golden Stairs, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1880, Tate Britain (kindly released under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) license). Reference: N04005.

Both subject and setting are ambiguous in Sir Edward Burne-Jones's The Golden Stairs. In this painting, Burne-Jones portrays a line of women descending a staircase — a golden staircase, in accord with the painting's title. Yet in fact, the title offers no other specific details about the painting's subject matter. Where do the women come from, where they are thery headed, and who are they?

The women seem almost identical with nearly indistinguishable faces, they are of the same height with the same gently rounded body shape, and they wear very similar dresses. Some of the women hold musical instruments, some wear varied leaves around their heads and bodies, some seem to be emanating light from their heads, and all are barefoot — as though these women might be goddesses or angels. This goddess-like, divine quality of the women, enhanced by the women's thin, flowing dresses and delicately pale skin, gives the painting an otherworldly air.

Discussion Questions

1. The thin, vertical shape of the painting's canvas is similar to the shape of Italian altarpieces. What might be the significance of this resemblance?

2. The golden hue of the staircase matches the women's skin tone. Why might Burne-Jones have chosen to make the staircase this color, and what is the effect of the painting's color composition as a whole?

3. Only one of the women in this painting focuses her gaze directly on the viewer. What is the significance of her placement at the front of the line?

4. Unlike many of the other pieces we have discussed in class, this painting makes no references to any textual works. How does this affect our interpretation of the painting? For example, what might some of the painting's details symbolize? Does the ambiguous nature of the painting affect how we interpret symbols?

Related Material


Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.

Last modified 12 June 2020