Image permission and credit: The British Library
Edward’s enthusiasm for all things medieval was contagious and it was he and Morris who, on their trips to London before 1856, encouraged Rossetti to research and absorb its influence by visiting the British Museum together to study the manuscripts there. In 1857, Edward was indirectly associated with the short lived Medieval Society which was attempting to make a collection of medieval artefacts and manuscripts. Amongst its members were Rossetti and his brother William, Holman Hunt, Madox Brown Morris and William Burges . Illuminated manuscripts chiefly function as decoration to the page; missal artists have no use for a depth of field and so fill in the spaces between figures with flat abstract pattern. Both Rossetti and Burne-Jones explored this two dimensionality and decorative profusion in their drawings and watercolours of the late 1850s. As has been noted, his familiarity with Morte D’Arthur is well recorded, yet in all the later literature concerning Burne-Jones there are only two other references of actual medieval or renaissance works he is known to have studied: Roman de la Rose in the British Museum mentioned earlier and a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (fig. 66) 13 which he owned and which served as an example for The Car of Love (fig. 65).
13. Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream), first published by Aldus Manutius in Venice 1499. Burne-Jones owned a copy (acquired before 1864) which had a considerable impact on his art. First, it is extremely erotic in content; second, he based the design and layout of the proposed illustrations to Morris’s Earthly Paradise upon it; and third, the illustrations provided a source for later paintings, for instance, The Passing of Venus (The Junior Common Room, Exeter College, Oxford), The Car of Love (Victoria & Albert Museum) and Poesis and Musica (both private collections).
In the mid 1860s the artist had entered a time of disquiet and introspection. His search for wider experiences as a mature human being began. With his marriage at a critical stage, particularly after Georgiana suffered a miscarriage, and on encountering the more sophisticated and sexually complex figures of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon in addition to Rossetti, the artist in him became discontent with what his wife and a conventional marriage had to offer. At that moment he was commissioned to paint a portrait by Euphrosyne Cassavetti of her daughter Maria Zambaco, the estranged wife a Parisian doctor. Maria was an unusual person to find in respectable circles. She was liberated, talented, very beautiful and was considered “fast”. She broke through the reticence of the artist and a passionate affair ensued. Once again the work he produced directly relates to the circumstances in his life. For a while he eschews cloistral medieval themes and introduces sensual neoclassical figures with loosely fitting clothes that stress the body beneath. He had embarked upon this neo-classical phase from studying the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. Nudity begins to take its place in his paintings and caused notoriety when he exhibited “Phyllis and Demophoon” at the Watercolour Society in 1870, where the semi-nude Phyllis (Maria) clasps the explicitly nude son of Theseus and Phaedra. Overt sensuality was intolerable to mid-Victorian society and the work had to be withdrawn. Unperturbed Edward proceeded with his personal iconography to the point that in 1881 he repainted the work on a huge scale as “The Tree of Forgiveness”, where Maria, now totally naked, clasps Demophone, whose sexuality is discretely covered. Maria continued as his muse henceforward and either she or a model with similar features is often to be found within his works. “Love among the Ruins” (two versions 1870 & 1870-73) allegorises his mental state toward the end of the affair with Maria. Lovers clasped in an intimate embrace originated from a series of drawings he had made in the late 1860’s and placing them amidst classical ruins derives from an image found in the Hypnerotomachi, but Burne-Jones chose to play down the sexually charged atmosphere contained in the illustration to develop an elegiac painting quite distinct from this point of departure. “Love among the Ruins” became the artist’s public statement at this, the lowest point in his personal life. He exhibited it at the Dudley Gallery in 1873.