Image permission and credit: The British Library
The text of this manuscript was copied from a printed edition published at Lyon, probably around 1487 (see Kren and McKendrick 2003 no. 120). The illuminators did not follow the illustrations of the printed exemplar.
The text of the Roman de la Rose was begun around 1220, possibly by Guillaume de Lorris and continued by Jean de Meun between 1269-1278. It is around 20,000 octosyllabic lines of French verse narrating the dream of a young lover, in which the long quest he has undertaken ends when he breaches the castle of Jealousy and obtains the rose. The earlier text is around 4,000 lines, and is lyrical and courtly, while the later addition is more didactic, scholarly, and pessimistic. Around 300 manuscript copies survive.
The painted versions of the “Romaunt”, dating from the 1890’s, are in the artist’s gentler palette that characterises his late works. Here Burne-Jones replaces medieval inertia with a trance-like state, typifying his frame of mind at this time toward objects of desire. The sadness that envelopes his maidens amplifies the stillness. Only one scene displays vigour: “Love Leading the Pilgrim”, in which the pilgrim emerges from a tangle of thorns and reaches for Love’s hand. When compared with the illumination in the Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung Roman de la Rose, the painting shows how the artist transforms an initial medieval illumination into his vision of the story. A late pastel variant portrays the rose as an actual maiden whilst in a further version, as a tapestry cartoon, a female head lays within the petals that resemble a vagina. The culmination of his interest in the story is found in the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) in which his mastery of design in black and white and his ability to create atmosphere is amply demonstrated. The seventeen illustrations follow Chaucer’s text, yet have a surreal intensity and combine to make a unique interpretation that becomes Burne-Jones’s final commentary on the narrative, which had played a central role in his life since his days in Oxford.