In the picture cycle Perseus and Andromeda Edward Burne-Jones gives us a series of paintings depicting the heroic exploits of the Perseus, the legendary figure from Greek mythology. Very much influenced by Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Burne-Jones had a long-standing interest in legends and his art is often preoccupied with the medieval ideals of chivalry and courtly love. Bill Waters has even argued that 'the whole of Burne-Jones's work is concerned with the psychology of love'. Thus in choosing Perseus as a subject Burne-Jones is able to marry all of the artistic ideals that were central to his work.
Unlike his contemporaries and predecessors, who painted individual pieces of the story, Burne-Jones elected to depict all of the important parts of Perseus's legend in a narrative sequence. As such, his treatment of Perseus's rescuing of Andromeda falls into two paintings that affect us as two distinct pictorial moments. This approach enables the painter to emphasise both the man's discovery of forsaken, beautiful woman and also his subsequent heroic battle with the sea monster that rescues her from impending death. These two moments are some of the most vivid and visceral of any Burne-Jones paintings. Andromeda and Perseus are pushed into the foreground of both pictures, without the painter having used elements from Perseus' earlier history or any symbolic gestures (as other artists have done). In fact the two lovers are almost perfectly aligned in the space of each painting, drawing our attention to their postures and gazes.
This is where Burne-Jones's signature marks the paintings: In the first — The Rock of Doom — Perseus, simply clad in armour, is like a knight encountering a damsel in distress. There is no Pegasus, neither are there magical weapons nor the trophy head of Medusa. The dark hues and barrenness of the landscape lend the picture an other-worldliness in which the only vestige of humanity seems to be Perseus and Andromeda who are both facing one another. Focusing on their postures and gazes we notice that they complement each other as counter-parts in every respect, yet they are spacially aligned nonetheless. He is fully-clothed and stealing a glance at her, open-armed, and she is naked and pointing her head away, retracting herself. Thus the first painting focuses on Perseus' discovery of his lover and his chivalrous resolve to rescue her. In the next painting two — The Doom Fulfilled two — now Andromeda positions herself in the opposite fashion as before. Freed from her chains she has her back facing the viewer but expectantly watches Perseus battle the sea monster as if she were completely absorbed in the action, belonging to it rather than the viewer. Again, visually the man and woman appear as counterparts two — one active with his arms and legs thrust open as he engages in battle and the other facing away, her body drawn inward. Thus in the space of the two paintings Andromeda has become Perseus' lover through his heroic act of chivalry and the story is fulfilled, the artist having focused on what he found most moving about the legend.
1. In what ways do the formal properties of the paintings predict the later work of the Pre-Raphaelite movement?
2. Burne-Jones has clearly drawn upon his great interest in Morte d'Arthur to depict the story of Perseus and Andromeda, but in what ways do these paintings differ from his other works?
3. The titles of the paintings bring to mind doom and fulfillment. How do these titles effect our appreciation of the works and what might the artist have had in mind when choosing these titles?
4. By choosing not to refer to the earlier exploits of Perseus from the first three paintings of the cycle Burne-Jones seems to make these two stand apart and act independently. How do these paintings compare to the rest of the narrative?
5. Not too many years after these paintings were painted the British painter Lord Frederick Leighton completed his version of Perseus and Andromeda in 1891. What aspects of this painting bring Burne-Jones' treatment of the subject into relief?
- The Beautification of Ugliness in Burne-Jones's Perseus Cycle
- Originality in Burne-Jones' The Death of Medusa
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 12 June 2020