Advent in Art 2005 - The Annunciation by Burne-Jones

Sarah James
Sunday, 27 November 2005

‘The Annunciation’
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Reflections by Sarah James

The piece of art I’ve chosen to present in our first Advent in Art Sunday is called ‘The Annunciation’ by the English artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, considered the most important painter of the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites. 

Our artist, Edward Jones was born in Birmingham in 1833, his father had a small frame making business and his mother’s family owned a jewellery-making firm, but sadly his mum died soon after his birth and his distressed father was unable to physically touch his son and so he was brought up by a rather severe housekeeper.  As a consequence of this lonely childhood, from an early age Edward created his own dream world to escape into and this is a quality that he brings to his painting – he was not so concerned with realism; recreating an accurate representation of a real event – his focus was more poetic and dreamy.   He was surrounded by well known and successfully artistic peers, friends and family, his wife was Georgiana MacDonald, one of the remarkable Macdonald sisters (she also a painter), he was uncle to Rudyard Kipling and it was at Exeter College in Oxford he met and become life long friends and workmates with the artist William Morris. They were both enthusiastic readers of John Ruskin – who was a strong proponent of the idea of art using allegory and symbolism to offer insights into the nature of God.  Both inspired to pursue careers as artists, Edward (or Ned) left Oxford without completing his studies but did have an apprenticeship a few years later with his artistic hero Dante Gabriel Rossetti,-co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  In 1861 William Morris launched his firm of 'Fine Art Workmen' for which Burne-Jones provided designs for tiles, furniture and most importantly stained glass.

In 'The Annunciation' Burne-Jones chose a vertical and narrow composition, as if the painting was another of his stained glass designs (he was one of the first artists to break away from the conventional canvas size.)

 Mary, the young Virgin looks startled by the angel's appearance, the hunching of her shoulders and the way in which she tightly clasps her dress suggest her awe for the determining event in her life. It is not only the honour of giving birth to God's Son but there is the sadness and sorrow she will experience as a mother losing her son.

A visual link with the role of the Virgin in saving humanity is made through the relief on the arch, a depiction of the angel expelling Adam and Eve from Eden; humanity has been alienated from God’s presence, but Mary’s son will reconcile people back into relationship with God.

There is a tremendous amount of drapery detail in Mary’s dress and also the angels’ clothing- I particularly love the detail of the wings and the ‘God-light’ emanating from Gabriel’s face – it is this beauty that I respond to and that first drew me to this picture- my thoughts turn to the divine just contemplating it.

 Burne-Jones emphasised lines in his works but never really demonstrated a great command of spatial arrangement. This is obvious in the way he’s painted Gabriel suspended in space and also rendered the arch of the building. The texture of the stone is most thoroughly painted and so is the supporting structure of the arch; however the perspective is ineffective and one is not naturally drawn into the depth of the painting. And it’s hardly a realistic setting - the architectural background is clearly derived from the artist’s visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873.

So, Burne-Jones was obviously not concerned to convince spectators about the reality of the scene or to make them feel present by means of illusion. Instead his aim is more poetic and spiritual in that we are expected to contemplate the news of the arrival of the saviour and feel the mystery of the divine union with human beings. There is a certain languid dreamy feeling from both figures and the lack of movement in the painting evokes a contemplative response.  We are meant to experience our distance from the divine and at the same time share the Virgin's awe.

Interestingly Burne-Jones (Ned) who entered into university as a devout Christian – looking at a possible career in the church underwent a crisis of faith, became agnostic and art replaced religion in his life – as it seemed to for his friend William Morris, but also for the writer John Ruskin.  My personal musings were I wonder if Ned’s distance from a personal connection and relationship with God (and probably also his childhood) influenced this focus on the ‘distant divine’, transcendent and removed. 

Personally, the biblical account of the annunciation evokes within me a  sense of amazement that while transcendent and holy, God intervened and drew close to us.  Becoming flesh and identifying with us in a visceral way- from the inside out Jesus shared our humanity.  As the gospel of Matthew mentions he will be called “Immanuel” – God with us, so that we could have a High Priest able to relate and sympathise with our weaknesses, while also holy so that that he could provide the way back to receive grace and renewed fellowship with God.

Read Luke 1:26-38
When reading the account of the annunciation in Luke 1:26-38. we should also be aware of its interconnectedness with the passage before it.  It is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and these two scenes and two sons function together within the one purpose of God ; to help people back into fellowship with God.  Structurally there are many similarities between the two annunciations but also a few significant differences that Luke uses to help draw our attention to what is important – and there is going to be a few surprises with Jesus, God is not going to be working in the expected way.  Whereas the first announcement takes place in the temple, to a man, a priest, offering incense in the Holy of Holies in the temple - at the very centre of Israelite culture - the announcement to Mary is in an obscure Galilean village – not a respected region to come from (perhaps the Ruatoria?? Of NZ -suggestions??) to a betrothed but young virgin girl, a common girl, with no particular family connections (its Joseph who is tied into the house of David in this text).  It’s a humble setting in comparison, a big clue to the way in which God will work out this story of salvation, but also God’s character.  Luke, as an author deliberately sets up a contrast between Zechariah and Mary and their response to the angelic visitation.  He portrays Zech’s response as being one of unbelief and holds up Mary’s response as an example to be praised and emulated in followers of God– “May it be to me as you have said’ - one who hears, believes and keeps the word of God. 

I hope that as you contemplate Burne-Jones beautiful picture this advent season you will be filled with a sense of quiet awe at both the mystery of the divine union with humanity but also joy at what this most important announcement means; God drew near and continues to drew close to us.  May we gain hope from God’s promise fulfilled and be inspired by  a ‘common girls’ response; “May it be to me as you have said” – one who hears, believes and keeps the words of God.

Raylee Bradfield sang her song ‘Common Girl’

Common Girl
Raylee Bradfield 2003

The angel came, towered above,
With heavenly word to say
She bowed her head low
I am your servant, she said, your will I will do
Her belly grew, Oh the Messiah
The Lord had shown her favour
Her son would save the nations

My soul sings to you O Lord
My soul sings for you O Lord
My soul sings for you
My soul it sings for you

What is this, the old man said
Your son will be rejected
A sword will pierce your very soul, no
Mary, Mary you were just a common girl
With heart full of wonder, things you did ponder
And stored up in your heart

My soul sings to you O Lord
My soul sings for you O Lord
My soul sings for you
My soul it sings for you

What is this she hears them say?
Crucify him
Her babe her son he is the one
Is now being led away, away

My soul sings to you O Lord
Though may heart may break, my soul sings to you O Lord
My soul sings to you O Lord
My soul will sing to you O Lord, to you, to you
Only you, only you