Tribute to Burne-Jones
"I believe it to be self-evident that on the whole stained glass practised in isolation produces at best minor and at worst catastrophically poor art. Although many great painters have designed stained glass and there exist some examples of outstanding work in the twentieth century alone, on the whole these are excursions into the medium representing moments of brilliance rather than a concerted engagement. Artists using stained glass in the fullest architectural sense, responding to the cut and thrust of architectural culture and the inevitable rhythms and contrasts of lyrical engineering are rare. Artists who regard the medium as having equal status with painting – exploiting its innate characteristics and values by allowing both mediums free range to interact with and influence each other – are even rarer.
Burne-Jones is the rarest of artists then: in this respect he is pre-eminent in the history of the medium. His pursuit of beauty involved a conflation of poetic, visionary ideals brought from his painting and designs, his wide reading and a lifelong desire to increase his vocabulary of beauty. He delighted in the inherent qualities of craft materials, and in no medium more so than in stained glass.
He sought depth of colour, liquid movement, air bubbles and striations locked within the glass at its molten stage. He constantly hounded his close collaborator Morris to find deeper colours more in keeping with the range available to medieval artists – colours that might better express the sense of historical mystery and longing he had experienced in French cathedrals and that swooned across his paintings, tapestries and illuminations.
One revealing aspect of that preoccupation is a lifelong appearance in his windows of exquisite fleeting moments. Single pieces of glass that swirl with depth and rush with ruby and violet, deep green or yellow. These highly conscious inclusions occur frequently enough throughout his work to show that they express a constant infatuation with material beauty. This was a fascination he never lost.
They occur in passages of foliage or night skies hidden in a small tracery trefoil or in the robe of an apostle, breaking through ornament, modelling or drapery – reminding us of the transparency of the medium and of its proud liquid resistance to control. Using the medium in this way requires great skill and ruthlessness if it is to succeed. It is often the hurdle at which lesser artists fall. The beguiling nature of the material can never be allowed to serve only itself, because once this happens authenticity is replaced by surface appearance and the vilest kind of kitsch is born. Materials must be sublimated to a greater whole. Burne-Jones resisted gratuitous beauty. He knew it would distract from the all important narrative. However, with the medium harnessed and used with judicial care, he was able to create a particular and unparalleled material sub-text to his work." – Brian Clarke, 2011
"Burne-Jones’s stained glass is full of secondary narratives that carry their own tertiary tales as well. This is nowhere more apparent than in his adept use of the predella, a device used by artists to introduce little dramas, which although independent of the central narrative, still form an integral part of the structural whole. Burne-Jones takes the predella further than ever before, creating autonomous worlds where mysteries deepen and beyond which another reality rooted in the materiality of the medium hovers within foliate ornament or emblazoning. Here usually reside the most precious of pieces. In some instances, experience suggests to me that entire sheets of glass must have been sacrificed for the one relatively small but crucial moment.
His windows chronicle the virtuoso skills he developed over time, dealing with the most complex fenestration and traceries and rarely repeating himself (beyond the obvious commercial duplications), bringing fertile uninhibited vivacity to this ancient form of art. It is worth noting that Burne-Jones and the medium of photography are almost exactly the same age, and as I think of photography as being synonymous with modernity, it is natural therefore that I see Burne-Jones as the first modern artist."