The Burne-Jones Adoration

More for the Epiphany season, following on a section on four artistic representations of the Adoration in my Epiphany posting “Commercial Christmas 2021: DJ’s third quarter”; and on my Epiphany Morrow posting “Royal Melchior”, about a Leonetto Cappiello poster depiction of the Magus Melchior. Assembling these postings led me through famous depictions of the Adoration (by Leonardo, Botticelli, and Rubens), which are enormously crowded, while my interest was in the Three Magi, and (because I’m Arnold Melchior Zwicky) in the Magus Melchior specifically.

So I came to stumble on an idiosyncratic delight, an 1894 tapestry (by Burne-Jones and others) depicting only the central figures of the Adoration scene: the Christ child, Mary, Joseph, and the Three Wise Men, plus (in the actual center of the image, rising in the air above the other figures) the Angel of God (responsible for the Annunciation to the shepherds, who don’t appear in #1), holding the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi from their home in the East (the geographic neighborhood of Persia, Babylonia, and Assyria) to the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

To come: the tapestry; the background on this blog; about the tapestry and its interpretation; about Burne-Jones; and about the celebration in song of the Angel of the Lord (with glory all around) proclaiming to the shepherds. (The music of the Star of Bethlehem I leave for another time.)

The tapestry. The Burne-Jones et al. Adoration of the Magi tapestry (completed in 1890; shown here in one of its ten copies):

(#1) A copy woven in 1894 for the Corporation of Manchester; the Magi are, from left to right, Melchior (an old white man bearing gold), Caspar (a young white man bearing frankincense), and Baltasar (a young black man bearing myrrh)

Separately (but also completed in 1890), Burne-Jones painted this scene in a watercolor entitled The Star of Bethlehem:

(#2) In both versions, below the Angel’s feet lie a golden crown (for the Christ child as King) and a clump of white flowers: Ornithogalum umbellatum, commonly known as ‘Star of Bethlehem’ (meanwhile, this version is missing the extraordinary infestation of white lilies in #1)

On the plant, from my 4/3/14 posting “star-of-Bethlehem”:

(#3) Ornithogalum umbellatum

One of the many bulbs that became naturalized in my Columbus OH garden. A mostly spring bloomer. A charming plant, even if it does spread.

And a note on the sex of angels. In principle, Judeo-Christian angels have no sex; they are celestial beings. But biblical references to angels apparently all have masculine gender, and the named angels all have masculine names, so it’s male angels down the line.

Meanwhile, Burne-Jones had quite the eye for beautiful young women, and regularly used them as models for angels (and other unearthly beings). The angel in #1 is clearly female.

But then his imagination tended to favor ethereal beauty, even for heroic young men. So some of his angels read as genuinely androgynous, or as beautiful young men. On the basis of the face alone, I could see the angel in #2 either way; but the angel seems to have an Adam’s apple, so I’m going for beautiful young man.

Background on this blog.  From 1/6:

(#4) Melchior, on the left, and his crew (from Henry Siddons Mowbray, The Magi, ca. 1915)

From 1/7:

(#5) The Cappiello: Melchior as King of France (Jack Rennert’s book on Cappiello’s posters suggests it’s meant to be François I), plugging sparking wine ca.1920

Over time the Christian Magi have become some mixture of priests, kings, sorcerers, and (as the Wise Men) seers and scholars. The biblical account is vague on almost every crucial point, so the details have been filled in as the story was retold and merged with existing cultural narratives and practices.

About the art works. From Wikipedia about the tapestry:

The original tapestry was commissioned in 1886 by John Prideaux Lightfoot, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, for the Gothic revival chapel built for the college in the 1850s by George Gilbert Scott. Lightfoot approached William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, both former students at Exeter, and suggested the subject matter for the tapestry, to which Morris agreed readily in a letter to Lightfoot dated 4 September 1886.

The overall composition and the figures were designed by Edward Burne-Jones, who completed a 26 × 38 inch modello or design in watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gold in 1887. Large-scale cartoons for the tapestry weavers were created from photographically enlarged panels of Burne-Jones’s watercolour. In a letter of 7 September 1886, Morris had suggested that the tapestry’s colouration should be “both harmonious and powerful, so that it would not be overpowered” by the chapel’s brilliantly coloured stained glass. Morris and his assistant John Henry Dearle chose a vibrant colour scheme and added background and foreground details including the flowering plants characteristic of Dearle’s tapestry work. [I  trust that somewhere, someone has catalogued Dearle’s flowers in the tapestry.] All in all, the tapestry took four years to realise, including two years’ work by three weavers at Morris’s Merton Abbey Mills. The tapestry was completed in February 1890 and displayed in Morris & Co.’s Oxford Street showroom in London that Easter before being presented to Exeter College.

Some specific notes from Anna Battista’s website Irenebrination: Notes on Architecture, Art, Fashion, Fashion Law & Technology, “Tales of Rarefied Beauty Frozen in Time: Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain, London” on 12/13/18:

All the figures are immersed in a garden-like environment with flowers in bloom and the three kings are characterised by sumptuous robes with striking details. The three figures bow in front of Jesus, represented in all his humanity, as a baby curling up in his mother’s arms as if he were frightened.

… The details are particularly intriguing in this piece – from the gems decorating the robes of the angel to Melchior’s surcoat featuring silver disks embossed with symbolical figures or the border of Gaspar’s robe, decorated with the story of Saint George and the dragon.

… Burne-Jones preferred to focus on universes revolving around Medieval art, religion, classical myths, Gothic fairytales, and themes and tales borrowed from Chaucer, Spenser and Tennyson, rejecting Victorian ideals and industrial inspirations.

His paintings, stained glass windows, tapestries, embroidery and jewellery often featured Arthurian knights, classical heroes and Biblical angels.

And then from Wikipedia about the watercolor:

The Star of Bethlehem is a painting in watercolour by Sir Edward Burne-Jones depicting the Adoration of the Magi with an angel holding the star of Bethlehem. It was commissioned by the Corporation of the City of Birmingham for its new Museum and Art Gallery in 1887 … At 101 1/8 x 152 inches, The Star of Bethlehem was the largest watercolour of the 19th century. It was completed in 1890 and was first exhibited in 1891.

A note on Burne-Jones from my 2/6/12 posting “The Cult of Beauty”, about a San Francisco exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 (on the British Aesthetic Movement):

From the Wikipedia page:

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet (28 August 1833 – 17 June 1898) was a British artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company.

A characteristic quote:

I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful – and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild.

Hymns about the Angel proclaiming to the shepherds. Specifically, the hymn text in this Wikipedia posting:

“While shepherds watched their flocks” is a traditional Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds, with words attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist and England’s Poet Laureate Nahum Tate.

… It is written in common metre and based on the Gospel of Luke 2:8–14.

Verse 1:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

The carol is sung to a huge number of tunes (it’s in common meter). Five of them: Winchester Old (below, from the 1982 Hymnbook of The Episcopal Church); one of the tunes named Carol (by Supply Belcher; below, from Karen Willard’s 1994 collection, An American Christmas Harp); Siroë (a tune arranged from Handel, below, also from Willard, but there with the text “Behold behold the love of God”); in the Sacred Harp tradition, Sherburne (#186 in the 1991 Denson Revision of The Sacred Harp; below, from Willard); or another one of the tunes named Carol (below, also from the Episcopal hymnbook, but there with the text “While shepherds watched their flock by night”). There are more. (Yes, I know, all this juggling of tunes, tune names, and texts is bewildering.)

Note: the three settings from Willard are all in Sacred Harp shapenote notation, with four different shapes for the notes of the scale, and also with the melody in the third, tenor, line (high harmony in the top, treble, line; low harmony in the bottom, bass, line; and inner harmony in the alto, second, line).

(I apologize for the crudeness of my scans.)

1 Winchester Old.


2 Belcher’s Carol.


3 Siroë.


4 Sherburne.


5 “Midnight clear” Carol.



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