Burne-Jones’ Annunciation

With the notable exception of Holman Hunt the Pre-Raphaelites were not a very religious bunch. Unless especially engaged in church commissions (like the Burne-Jones windows in Oxford Cathedral or the mosaics for the American Church in Rome), biblical scenes were, for them, on a par with the Arthurian legends, Chaucer or the Divina Commedia. They were, in short, often simply an excuse to paint one or other of the Brotherhood’s attendant womenfolk.

Burne-Jones attempted the Annunciation twice. Early in his career, in gouache, he painted a curiously anaemic Virgin in prayer at her bedside, gazing raptly at a Gabriel who is the twin of Rosetti’s Monna Vanna. The composition was clearly influenced by the medieval manuscripts which he had been studying in the British Museum Library. The carpet and slippers owe a good deal to the Flemish Primitives.

The present Annunciation is more assuredly in a style which is distinctively his own. The narrow upright panel and tightly constricted architecture remind one of The Golden Stairs or King Copheta and the Beggar Maid. The model for Mary is Julia Stephen, wife of Leslie Stephen and mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. The robes of the angel are a romantic tribute to the hieratic folds of early gothic sculpture like that of the north portal of Chartres.

But what is going on in the picture? There is no eye contact between the protagonists. The serene repose of the Virgin gives no clue to her thoughts or emotions. She is as sterile as the statue in Jones’s Pygmalion, painted a few years earlier. The symbolic allusions – the bas-relief of the Fall of Man beside the improbably narrow archway and the well with its pitcher of water – are decorative rather than significant.

Burne-Jones’s greatest works (or at least his most typical) are his tapestries. This Annunciation is like them. Not a work of great depth or penetration, but a consummate piece of decoration: the Annunciation as Good Taste.

Mark Stevens