Image permission and credit: Bodleian Libraries
On the 28th of August 1833 Elizabeth Jones (née Burne) died in childbirth. Her only child Edward survived and had to be reared by a series of hired nurses. Edward Snr., the baby’s father, laid the responsibility for his wife’s death on the boy’s shoulders and the guilt harried the artist for the rest of his life. Being reared in such a household had a lasting effect upon his art and his subsequent relationship with the women who became his intimate confidantes. His art became a quest for self-knowledge, finally resolving for him the perplexing relationship between the sexes and revealing the mystery of his sexual life. Medieval literature and art frequently deals with a symbolic journey in search of the answers to life’s meaning. This questing spirit he discovered in the manuscripts he viewed at the Bodleian Library whilst a student at Oxford, almost certainly including the late 15th century Roman de la Rose, the French poem by Guillaume de Loris and Jean de Meung (1230-1275) and his youthful interest was aroused by the richly decorated 13th century Bible Moralisée.
3. Bodleian Library, Roman de la Rose, MS Douce 195. Decorated with miniatures attributed to Robinet Testard (fl 1475-1531
Stained glass design provided financial security throughout the artist’s life. At a time when he abandoned his ambition to become a priest and had no other means of support, Rossetti introduced him to James Powell of Whitefriars, the firm that was pursuing a new direction in stained glass design. Without any experience in the field, Burne-Jones took advice from Rossetti’s friend and fellow member of the Medieval Society, the architect William Burges. Like the young artist, Burges was a convinced gothicist and encouraged him to make his stained glass designs in full colour and, unusual for the time, in oils. In 1860 artist and architect worked on the restoration of the east end of Waltham Abbey and Burne-Jones produced a magnificent window consisting of a “Jesse Tree” placed as a pendant to a set of “Days of Creation”. Like many of his early works these subjects provided themes which he re-used many times in later life. His original inspiration for the compositions came from the illuminations illustrating the Creation story in Genesis in the Bodleian Bible Moralisée in the Bodleian Library.
For comparison with The Days of Creation