In Sir Edward Burne-Jones' The Wheel of Fortune a massive Lady Fortune revolves a giant wheel, determining the fate of men. Contrary to the traditional medieval representations of the wheel of Fortune as holding four men in different stages of fortune and misfortune, Burne-Jones chooses to present three contorted male figures, clearly derived from his study of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel during his recent trip to Italy. On the top right a slave, chained to the wheel, steps on the head of a crowned king below him. Further below, cut by the bottom edge of the painting, a poet with a laurel wreath gazes imploringly at Lady Fortune's feet. But Lady Fortune looks at no-one; her eyes are closed to the fates of the men. Lady Fortune's refusal or inability to be accountable for the fate of the men lends the painting an air of instability and a rather resigned despair, furthered by the painful contortion and vulnerability of the nude male bodies. Moreover, Burne-Jones paints his Lady Fortune as a gigantic and fully-clothed figure who needs only to rest a hand on the wheel in order to spin it while the much smaller, naked men helplessly writhe on the wheel. And adding to the sense of instability in this particular version of the painting, Lady Fortune stands by a wall on what seems to be a cliff. Behind the wheel and the men Burne-Jones paints an almost lunar landscape. By the spinning of Fortune's wheel, the men appear to fall into a precipice.
In contrast to the theme of a wheel, there is little circularity or continuity in the painting. Why would Burne-Jones emphasize verticality instead of circularity when dealing with such a subject?
Traditional medieval representations of Fortuna depict her wheel as having four shelves with four human figures portraying a future king, a present king, a past king, and a man with no kingdom. Burne-Jones paints a slave over a king over a poet. What is the significance in this reversal of hierarchy?
Lady Fortune, a woman, controls sensuously writhing male figures. What are the tensions of gender, power, and beauty in the painting?
Burne-Jones studied under Dante Gabriel Rossetti. What is there of Rossetti's women in Lady Fate? Compare her to Rossetti's femmes fatales such as Lady Lilith. Do they also control the fate of men?
Give a reading of the painting through Burne-Jones' personal life and his desperate love with Maria Zambaco.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 12 June 2020