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Mary Kenny: The pre-Raphaelite artist who fused faith and beauty to create enduring Christmas masterpieces



Exquisite works: The Adoration of the Magi

Exquisite works: The Adoration of the Magi

The Calling of St Peter

The Calling of St Peter


Exquisite works: The Adoration of the Magi

In our era of multiculturalism, perhaps the image of The Adoration of the Magi is quite apt: the three wise men who bring gifts to the infant Jesus are depicted as representing three different ethnicities. King Gaspar of Godolie hails from the region we now call the Yemen; Melchoir, King of Tarsis, is from a province of Turkey, and Balthazar, King of Nubia, would have travelled from Egypt-Sudan.

Ever since the Christmas card was invented in the early Victorian era, the Magi has been a compelling image.

Edward Burne-Jones's exquisite Magi tapestry - executed by the renowned William Morris in 1894 - has achieved iconic status, with its lush floral framework, its simple manger of wattle and thatch, the infant Jesus turned towards the Magi and the Angel (note the perfect feet) holding the light which has guided the kings thither.

Burne-Jones, one of the brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelite artists which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, had painted the Magi on several previous occasions. He was a man of religious sensibilities, but the image of the newborn babe safe in the arms of his mother may have had particular resonance for him.

Born in Birmingham in 1833, his own mother died four days after his birth, and his gloomy father could never bring himself to show affection for the son who had cost his wife's life.

Then, as a young married man himself, Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana experienced the loss of a child through stillbirth (caused by scarlet fever in late pregnancy), which even in an era when infant - and maternal - deaths were not uncommon, was felt as a deep grief by the couple.

As a youth, Ned Burne-Jones was sent to Oxford to be ordained in the Anglican Church and it was there he met William Morris, the arts and crafts pioneer, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. Gradually, his vocation was transferred to art, especially after seeing Fra Angelica's The Coronation of the Virgin at the Louvre.

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The Pre-Raphaelites were Romantics attracted to Mediaeval and chivalric ideals, as well as to faith. The Arthurian myths, the stories of Chaucer and legends and fairy tales were also all part of their imaginative vision - a reaction against some of the brutalities of Victorian industrialisation.

Burne-Jones was dazzled by John Henry Newman, and considered becoming a Roman Catholic, like Newman. But it was a step too far, especially as his wife was the daughter of a Methodist preacher, and in any case the attraction was probably more aesthetic than devotional. The Church of Rome was, to him, "a refuge of beauty" and the repository of the European civilisation that he had found in France and more especially in Italy, where he had been so smitten by the beauties of Renaissance painting. Ritual brought comfort, he felt. It should also shield the poor from the rich.

Faith, for the Pre-Raphaelites, was essentially connected to beauty in painting, architecture, and ritual. Beauty, said Burne-Jones, "exalts the spirit". He disliked plainness and austerity in church design.

These artists didn't always see a contradiction in upholding religious ideals while taking a mistress (or even, according to the biographer Fiona MacCarthy, perusing pornography), and to the stoical dismay of his wife, Ned had a passionate extra-marital relationship with one, if not two, women. The couple had decided to cease marital relations to avoid the risks of another dangerous pregnancy - two children had survived - which may have been a factor. Yet the marriage endured and at the end of his days Burne-Jones was surrounded by a warm extended family.

All his life, he continued to produce stunning, vivid, brilliant religious stained-glass church windows, pictures of the Apostles - notably St Peter - the evangelists, saints and angels, as well as entrancing work based on the Sleeping Beauty legend, which he believed was an allegory of resurrection from death.

His work was always adorned with the rich texture of nature: he loathed the "plundering" of the countryside, and would have fitted harmoniously into the modern ecology movement.

Georgiana noted that women always liked his Nativity pictures and when he did his first major Magi and Shepherds with the Annunciation as a triptych for a Brighton church, she called it "by far the most important work he has ever done".

The tapestry of the Magi came towards the end of his life and it brought together two aspects of Christianity he loved - "the Christmas Carol side and the mysticism."

A young girl asked Burne-Jones if he believed in the story of the Star of Bethlehem guiding the Magi, and he replied: "It is too beautiful not to be true."

He died in 1898 and, as so often happens, he and the Pre-Raphaelites fell out of fashion in the succeeding decades.

It was the generation of the 1960s which rediscovered the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites, with their pale faces and flowing locks. David Bowie considered Burne-Jones an inspiration and composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber owns one of the finest of all Burne-Jones collections.

In art, he was a Mediaevalist - he often lamented that he wasn't born in the Middle Ages - but in politics Edward Burne-Jones was a liberal progressive.

He was vehemently against all imperialism, opposed the Boer War and supported the Irish national cause. He felt a "Celtic mysticism" in solidarity with Ireland, citing his own Welsh heritage, and he much admired Michael Davitt. "Anything that comes on the English from Ireland they most richly deserve," he said, "for their insulting pride and bullying of poor Irish folk."

Piquantly, much as he loved Christmas for its carolling and its mysticism, even in the 1890s he disliked its excesses. On January 1, 1896 he told his studio assistant, Thomas Rooke: "I'm so glad Christmas week is over - it's a horrid time - everyone so sodden and overfed children so spoiled and cross." So, not much changes!

Edward Burne-Jones - a full retrospective of his work is at the Tate Gallery in London until February 24

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