Song of Solomon in the style of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Oil, board, triptych, central image 76.5 x 52 x 0.5 cm (30 1/8 x 20 1/2 x 1/4 inches); left wing 78.5 x 21 x 0.5 cm (30 7/8 x 8 1/4 x 1/4 inches); right wing 78 x 20.5 x 0.5 cm (30 5/8 x 8 x 1/4 inches). Provenance: bought as Lot 1766, Lawrences of Crewkerne, April 26th, 2013.
Commentary by Paul Crowther
The Latin verses are from the Vulgate Bible's Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon, or Canticles). This is one of the shortest books in the Bible (consisting of 117 verses) and is customarily regarded as a parable of relationships between God and the Church of Christ and the human soul. This is focussed, symbolically, in lyrical episodes concerning the relationship between a husband and wife. A variety of physical contexts—including a garden—are described in the Book. The narrative's main protagonists are a woman (described in one verse as "the Shulamite") and a man. The verses evoke love, courtship, and consummation between the husband and wife. There is also an important element in the narrative that has been taken to allude to the role of the Virgin Mary in the coming of Christ.
In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of stained-glass windows based on verses from the Song of Solomon (for St. Helen's Church, Darley Dale, Derbyshire, UK). And again, in 1876, he linked image and text in "five designs from the Song of Solomon—for paintings on panel some day" (quoted in Christian and Wildman 190). One of the designs—the Sponsa di Libano—was rendered as a large watercolour in 1891 (Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK). However, there is no evidence that Burne-Jones ever did execute these designs—or, indeed, any other verses from the Song of Solomon—on panel. There are certainly no references to them in the inventory of his works held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
That being said, the present work is profoundly indebted to Burne-Jones in ways that will be described further on. The left panel illustrates Chapter 4, verse 4—"Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus" ("My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up." This verse is also the subject of one of Burne-Jones's 1876 series, though the drawing in question there has no significant visual similarities to the present work. The central panel represents Chapter 5, verse 5—"Ego dormio, et cor meum vigilat. Vox dilecti mei pulsantis. Aperi mihi, soror mea, amica mea, columba mea, inmaculata mea, quia caput meum plenum est rore, et cincinni mei guttis noctium" ("I sleep, and my heart watcheth: the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights."
10. Again, this verse is also the basis of one of Burne-Jones's 1876 series, though the drawing in question there has no significant visual affinity with the present work.) The right panel illustrates Chapter 4, verse 6—"Donec adspiret dies, et inclinentur umbrae, vadam ad montem murrae, et ad collem turis" ("Till the day break, and the shadows retire, I will go to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense").
The question arises as to why these three verses are linked to form a triptych. On the assumption that the viewer is meant to read the narrative from left to right, the following interpretation might be offered. The left panel's imagery is evocative of joyous events yet to happen. These are characterized metaphorically as sister and a spouse identified with an enclosed garden, and a sealed fountain. The implication is that from all this something extremely complex will—in due course—grow and burst into life. The something will be so important as to be like a sister or like one's spouse. It is reasonable to suppose that what is alluded to here is the immaculate conception, of which Christ and Christ's church are the outcome. The Shulamite woman in the panel symbolizes Mary, and the enclosed garden her virginal state and potential for growth; the immaculate conception is the concealed fountain, and the Church and one's personal relation to Christ are, respectively, the sister and spouse alluded to.
In the central panel, we find an even more complex presentation of these factors. The Mary/Shulamite figure sleeps, and listens for the voice of her Beloved. An Angel appears and asks to be let in and sheltered. It can be reasonably assumed that this letting-in and sheltering is, in symbolic terms, the immaculate conception—with the life of Christ and his Church as the ultimate outcome. The Shulamite's Beloved and Mary's angel, in other words, are merged as a single visual entity. Indeed, this merging entirely complements the Song of Solomon's allegorical prophetic aspects.
The final panel presents the Mary/Shulamite figure after this revelation. In virtual terms, she is looking outside her chamber, and in real terms, towards the central panel. The text says that she will go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense until the day breaks and shadows retire. Frankincense and myrrh were, of course, two of the gifts brought by the wise men to the Nativity. They also have a symbolic meaning in Christian folklore—myrrh is associated with suffering and anointing after death and frankincense with the activity of the priest. This would indicate again, several levels of meaning to the panel. On the one hand, Mary knows that she will face the terrible suffering of Christ's death, but that he will be resurrected and will perform important religious acts before his ascension to heaven; on the other hand, whilst the masses of humankind are destined for death and suffering, the agents of Christ working amongst them explain the possibility of eternal life through belief in Christ and the day of his coming. Her gaze is directed, in other words, towards darkness (the mountain of myrrh) and the salvation that will overcome it through the Church of Christ (the hill of frankincense). She countenances both her own personal destiny and that of humanity as a whole in the light of Christ's redemptive mission.
It can be argued, then, that the triptych presents anticipations of Christ's coming through the symbolism of the Mary/Shulamite figure and her settings. It might be thought that this interpretation is placing too much emphasis on the Mary role, and not enough on the Shulamite (who is, after all, the official key player in the Song of Solomon narrative). However, there are further important iconographic reasons for doing so. In the first place, the panels—especially the central one—each provide considerably more visual information than is contained in the specific verses they illustrate. Indeed, the enclosed garden and lilies that figure in the left and centre panels were already well-established symbols of Mary's virginity and purity by the time of the Renaissance, and are frequently used in images of the Annunciation.
Interestingly, the main "official" New Testament account of the Annunciation (in the Gospel of St. Luke Chapter 1, verses 26-38) is very sparse, recounting little more than the fact of Gabriel appearing to Mary, and the words that he said to her. However, the central panel of the present work suggests another source—the more detailed account of the Annunciation found in the Protoevangelium, i.e. the apochryphal Gospel of St. James, which is thought to date from around 145 A.D. A translation of this was available in English even in the eighteenth century, but several versions were published in the 1860s (for example, in B. Harris Cowper's The Apocryphal Gospels, Edinburgh and London: Williams and Norgate, 1867). Whilst the Apocrypha are not regarded as canonical texts theologically speaking, the Protoevangelium offers rich material for the artistic imagination.
This is because it presents the Annunciation in a wider context of events. The priests of the great temple decide that a veil should be woven for it, and to this end, select pure, virginal women for the task, one of whom is Mary. She is assigned the task of weaving the "scarlet" and "true purple" material for the veil. She does this at home. After weaving the scarlet, she goes outside to fill a pitcher of water from the well, and whilst doing this, hears a voice announcing the blessedness of her status amongst women. She becomes afraid and goes inside to work on the purple material, but, when she has done so, an angel appears and tells of the immaculate conception that she is about to undergo.
This account clearly informs Burne-Jones's Annunciation of 1876-1879 (in the Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK). The painting has the angel appearing to Mary in an outdoor setting that includes both a well and a pitcher. In effect, Burne-Jones is fusing the Luke and Gospel of St. James accounts of the event for creative pictorial purposes. This provides important clues to understanding the central panel of the present work—which also alludes to both accounts of the Annunciation. For example, it is notable that, in the central panel, the angel is rendered in the most striking hue of scarlet, with the drapery covering and constellating the angelic body in a whirling but tightly interwoven unity. The suggestion may be that the angel has saluted Mary by appearing in a guise alluding to her weaving of the scarlet for the temple. Indeed, it is notable that a scarlet curtain also hangs behind Mary in the right panel.
There is a further—more important—parallel. The Mary/Shulamite figure has gone out to fill a pitcher from the well, as does Mary in the Gospel of St. James account. And in that account Mary's first experience of the angel is through hearing, not seeing. True, Mary/Shulamite is represented as asleep in the central panel of the present work (which she is not in the Gospel of St. James account), but, in both texts, the woman's encounter with the angel/Beloved is through listening and hearing. In effect, the artist of the triptych is composing the image as a synthesis from three texts—the Song of Solomon, the Gospel of James account of Mary's first auditory encounter with the angel, and with the angel manifesting visually—as in the St Luke version.
The iconography becomes more complex still, through the visual means of its realization. For it is striking that the continuous contour formed by the angel's arm, shoulder, neck, and head, some further aspects of the upper body, and the disposition of drapery immediately above the head are taken directly from Burne-Jones's Cupid Finding Psyche. This exists in a number of versions one of which (a watercolour from 1866 in the British Museum, London) has much affinity with the present work. The Museum's online catalogue entry for this watercolour states that: "Jealous of Psyche's beauty, Venus sent Cupid to destroy her, but he fell in love with the sleeping princess. Cupid, who could visit Psyche only under the cover of darkness, represents love, and Psyche represents the longing of the human soul" [link to the catalogue].
By blending this pagan thematic with imagery based on the Annunciation narratives, the artist of the triptych, in effect, extends the fundamental meaning of the Song of Solomon. Earthly love in all its sensuousness is made into an allegory of the emotional power of spiritual communion and the anticipation of salvation.
It is worth noting other visual features of the triptych derived from motifs in Burne-Jones. The British Museum Cupid Finding Psyche (and, indeed, several of Burne-Jones's treatments of this subject) includes a trellised fence with climbing roses. The motif is also found in other works by Burne-Jones, such as the Princess Sabra of 1865 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris [external link]). A fence of this kind can be seen behind Mary/Shulamite in the left-hand panel. This panel also features a shallow ornamental pond with affinity to those found in several of Burne-Jones's treatments of Cupid Finding Psyche. In the central panel, the head of the angel and that of Mary/Shulamite have some affinity with the heads of two sleeping women in the centre-left of The Rose Bower in The Briar Rose series from Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, UK, (completed between 1885 and 1890). Indeed, sleeping figures per se are one of Burne-Jones's most favoured motifs throughout his oeuvre. There is also further affinity between the central panel's rendering of the background trees and Burne-Jones's style of doing these in the Princess Sabra and other works.
The artist of the triptych, then, has created a narrative from three biblical sources, and a classical one taken directly from Burne-Jones. Given that Burne-Jones trained as a theology student in Oxford, it would be tempting to imagine that this is a hitherto unknown work by him. This is very unlikely. For, whilst there is some affinity with Burne-Jones's style of the mid 1860s, the triptych seems to be better described as a remarkable set of variations on aspects of Burne-Jones.
However, its significance goes beyond this. In many respects the triptych has its own uniquely creative aspects—over and above the extraordinary intellectual and artistic sophistication of its multi-level narrative structure. The handling of paint is broader than in most of Burne-Jones's work, and the drapery, in particular, is more fluid and has fewer linear emphases, striations, and less attentiveness to textural detail. There is also far less emphasis on tonal modelling than is usually found in Burne-Jones. The triptych artist favours a broader, more painterly and fluid handling of forms (especially the drapery) and the intensity of colouring accentuates this sensuous delivery. As we have seen, The Song of Solomon concerns the sensual as an allegory of the spiritual. The triptych artist evokes this—with a vitality that goes beyond what Burne-Jones himself might have achieved.
As to the identity of the triptych's creator, this is a mystery. However, the ornate oak frame seems to have been created with the content of the three panels in mind. It repeats—in an approximate way—some of the general visual rhythms found within the panels. However, the upper frame seems to post-date the lower portions, so it may be that more than one artist was involved with it. Whatever the case, if the artist who painted the original panels had involvement with the frame, then he or she clearly possessed competence in traditional woodcraft as well as fine art. In this respect, it is interesting that the Birmingham School of Art—on its re-foundation as a Municipal School in 1885—became an important centre for Arts and Crafts movement work inspired by Burne-Jones and William Morris. A notable member of the group of artists associated with this tendency was Sidney Meteyard, a friend of both Morris and Burne-Jones, and a master of numerous crafts over and above painting. As a painter, indeed, much of his work was closely indebted to Burne-Jones, though he was able to work in a surprisingly wide range of painterly styles. The closest work we have found to the triptych is, in fact, a Meteyard enamel on copper work of around 1900 entitled Psyche at Cupid's Gate [external link]. Any link to Meteyard is, however, at best speculative.
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Christian, John and Stephen Wildman, eds. Edward Burne-Jones. Victorian Artist-Dreamer. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 13.
Last modified 8 December 2014