Advent in Art 07: The Star of Bethlehem

Helen Bayldon
Sunday, 16 December 2007


Helen Bayldon, Sunday 16 December 2008, Third Sunday in Advent


click for larger image


Edward Burne-Jones         The Star of Bethlehem

My name is Helen Bayldon.

“Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails.” (Edward Burne-Jones)

“a thing of beauty is a joy forever” (Mary Poppins and Yeats)

Birmingham in 1833 the year Edward Burne-Jones was born, was unimaginably ugly and squalid, the “workshop of the world” and a byword for the dire effects of unregulated capitalism –. Dust and grime, people everywhere, textile mills, factories, smoke and filth as the Industrial Revolution ground on and industrialism expanded rampantly. We all thought Westfield shopping malls in Dec are noisy and bright and materialistic, and we don’t even have the factories and labour force and subsequent pollution on the outskirts of Auckland that goes to produce all the trinkets and lights and plastic stuff that is so prevalent in our lives at this time.

The great Victorian thinkers, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and John Henry Newman were denouncing the materialism and moral ugliness of the modern world.

Moral renovation, purity and spiritual values were captured by the ideals of the Tractarian movement. This attempted a renewal of the Anglican Church, delving back into the Catholic past for inspiration and placing a strong emphasis on ritual and richness in clothing, decoration, and display. And on the importance of spiritual values which seemed to BJ to have been omitted or erased from modern life.

“in an age of sofas and cushions (Newman) taught me to be indifferent to comfort, and in an age of materialism he taught me to venture all on the unseen”

Tractarianism encouraged BJ to develop a romantic, spiritualised medievalism. He was not a Christian, and although once intended for the church, was an intellectual who had lost his faith and despised the church establishment. He loved Christmas card Christianity for its directness, colour, clarity and pure joy. He was an enigma with a deep sense of the spiritual yet not of the church, a love and longing for a romanticised past yet living in a time when wealth and materialism were all encompassing. He was acutely aware of the rampant social injustices that were happening around him, and yet painted pictures of ethereal beauty.

EBJ’s entire life work can be understood as an attempt to create in paint a world of perfect beauty as unlike the Birmingham of his youth as possible.

Julia Cartwright wrote of EB-J in 1894 “in a period which is essentially prosaic, when realism has invaded both art and fiction and material prosperity seems to be the end and aim of all endeavour, he has remained a poet and idealist… from the dullness and ugliness of the present he turns with all the passionate ardour of his being to the forgotten past and there, in the myths and fairytales of the old world, he finds the food after which his soul hungers, there his love of beauty is satisfied, his imagination finds itself at home.”

The Star of Bethlehem is escapist art. It was the largest watercolour ever done in the 19th century, measuring a massive 18 feet by 12 feet, and was commissioned by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The figures seem to inhabit a strange and silent land. The scene takes place in a dream world created by the artist’s longing imagination. An unrealistic, magic woodland and flowered glade surrounds the Holy Family. The detail with which the foliage is painted is found in other paintings by Burne-Jones, and is evidence of his romantic nostalgia. The background fairly glows with light, although is undefined. It is more likely this is Medieval England than Israel 2000 years ago. The golden paths through the forest seem to lead inevitably to the ‘stable’. And the figures are obviously central to the work.

In this scene Mary sits in a framed manger with the Christ child on her knee. Joseph stands behind her, off to the side – an observer. The angel, holding a glowing orb, - a star? - is in the centre, while the three kings stand crowding in from the right.
The sumptuousness of the Kings is what first caught my eye. The detail in their clothing, I love fabric and am fascinated how Burne-Jones has recreated the warp and weft of silk in paint. The costumed look very medieval, almost as is if they have come from the time of Arthur.

It is images rather than the written word that shape our mental picture of Christ’s infancy and childhood.
The story of Christ’s birth is not told in Mark or John. Matthew simply states that he was born in Bethlehem during King Herod’s reign. He describes the arrival of astrologers (Magi) from the east, who, guided by a star they saw paid homage to Christ at Bethlehem, presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Luke mentions the stable and relates how shepherds were told by an angel about Christ’s birth and went to honour him, but does not refer to the magi.
By the third century the magi were described as kings and it was agreed that there were three. By the ninth century they were named and represented three different races: Balthasar, Asian; Gaspar, European; Melchior, African.

The earliest known Adoration of the magi was painted on a wall of the catacomb of St Priscilla in Rome around 200. Here the Magi are wise men, not kings; neither Joseph, the stable, the ox, nor the ass, are present. In art the magi did not become kings until the 10th century, with Christ presented as the King of Kings.

In this picture we see no camels, nor do we sense that these three have travelled for many miles and weeks. They have donned their finery, and yet have laid their earthly status at the foot of the babe. In the context of the enormous social inequalities in Victorian England at the time, the picture smacks of social and political radicalism, just as the real event did 2000 years ago. The kings have taken off their crowns, the first has even laid his on the ground. Mary sits in their presence. They are humble in their demeanour. But their expressions give nothing away. Are they happy, relieved, awed? They do not seem to be overjoyed at fulfilling their mission, with blank, sombre faces.
“The moment you give what people call expression you destroy the typical character and degrade them into portraits which stand for nothing”. Burne-Jones is inviting us to contemplate the event itself. To look beyond who these people are and wonder ourselves at God, who came to us as a baby, and grew into a man and offer us an upside down reality.

As well as the kings, there is the angel, who takes the middle space, and is slightly raised and suspended in mid air. Burne-Jones is noted for his fluid angels. They generally seem to be docile, even-tempered and thoughtful and particularly androgynous. The Star of Bethlehem angel is “strange and radiant”, a feathery winged creature who brings the star right up to the Christ child so the kings couldn’t miss Him. The angel has a mission to fulfil. Again he (for his chin is not strong enough to be one of Burne-Jones females) is humble, not even daring to open his eyes and look.
Burne-Jones’ feminine ideal is taken from Rossetti’s style – abundant hair, prominent chins, columnar necks and androgynous bodies covered/hidden by copious medieval gowns. Mary looks up at the visitors and again remains expressionless. Burne-Jones gives us no hint as to how she might have felt at the sight of three richly dressed foreigners coming to lay outrageous, extraordinary gifts at the feet of her baby. I always wonder what became of the gifts? Did Mary and Joseph spend them on schooling for Jesus? Did they bury them in the back garden? Are they still there? Did Jesus take them as offerings to the temple when he was 12? We’re not told. It’s amazing how much conversation you can have through gesture. I’m assuming Mary and Joseph worked out fairly quickly what the visitors wanted.

Joseph the observer, stands behind the central action. He is dressed in dark grey and has been working collecting and cutting wood. His axe lies at his feet. I think this is Burne-Jones. He inhabits many of his other pictures, often as a victim of a beguiling, beautiful woman as he was in life. Here he has given Mary a shining face and radiant beauty and it’s almost as if she is as equally lustrous as the kings.

The baby Jesus, with his too much hair and too small head for such a sized infant sits naked in her lap. I do wonder why Jesus is often naked in infancy. Winter in Israel is a cold affair, with snow and freezing temperatures even after global warming. I guess it’s because we can’t then define Him by his clothes. We make our impressions of people based primarily on how they look – what they wear, how clean they are, the expression on their faces. Burne-Jones is asking us to contemplate the cold hard reality of the Christ on earth.
All in warm glowing tones of course!

When asked if he believed the scene he had painted Burne-Jones replied that “it is too beautiful not to be true”

So I will leave you with the two quotes I started this with and then a reflection.

“Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails.”
“a thing of beauty is a joy forever”

What beauty do you have within you that you would lay at the feet of God?