In his Pygmalion cycle Edward Burne-Jones applied a medieval aesthetic to classical or Italianate subject matter, as Christopher Wood notes: "although the subjects are classical, and the colors Italianate, Burne-Jones has invested the Pygmalion story with an atmosphere of medieval courtly love, rather than classical legend." A somewhat opposite situation occurs with The Beguiling of Merlin, in which Burne-Jones depicts a medieval theme in a Renaissance mode. The subject of the painting, the enchantment of Merlin by the sorceress Nimue, derives directly from a medieval French Arthurian romance. However, whereas Dante Gabriel Rossetti's medievalesque paintings were often unrealistic and two-dimensional, Burne-Jones endows his figures with an appearance of verisimilitude and of perspective. He models Nimue's garment so that it resembles actual drapery, and the projection of her right hand into the picture plane suggests the existence of a three-dimensional space within the frame of the painting. Both these characteristics call to mind, not actual medieval art, but rather the work of Burne-Jones's major influence Michelangelo. Burne-Jones also makes use of sfumato, a stylistic trademark of Leonardo, in Nimue's face and in the trees behind her. Though this painting illustrates a medieval narrative, it does so in the style of the Renaissance.
1. The very name "Pre-Raphaelite" implies a conscious rejection of Renaissance influences and a return to an older, more nave artistic paradigm. By taking inspiration from Renaissance masters, does Burne-Jones reject the Pre-Raphaelite agenda? In what ways does a Renaissance-esque painting such as this still conform to Pre-Raphaelite ideas?
2. Does a tension exist between Burne-Jones's Renaissance style and medievalist subject matter? Why might he have chosen to paint a theme from one period in the style of another period?
3. How does Burne-Jones's treatment of Arthurian romance compare to that of other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle? Does The Beguiling of Merlin depict the same Arthurian milieu that appears in "The Lady of Shalott"?
4. Merlin is often depicted as a stereotypical-looking ancient wizard with a flowing beard and long robes. However, Burne-Jones visualizes Merlin as a relatively young-looking man whose clothing and appearance give little indication of the vast magical powers he suppposedly possessed. Why might Burne-Jones have depicted Merlin in this way?
- Arthurian Enchantment and Burne-Jones's Psychology of Love
- Fusing Italian Renaissance Ideals Into Pre-Raphaelitim in The Beguiling of Merlin
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 12 June 2020