Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Era: Linking Time and a Sense of Place through Art
I am awakened by the sound of cathedral bells (my wake-up call of choice) as my alarm clock announces the birth of a new day. I open my eyes and groan, ready for another day of grueling classes and studying. My hand gropes for my alarm clock as I attempt to hit the snooze button, hoping to steal a few more minutes of sleep.
Feeling my hand flail aimlessly, my brain registers that, oddly enough, my hand is touching nothing. Just as I come to comprehend that something is amiss, I realize that, rather than lying on my Sealy Posturepedic mattress with pillow topper, I am lying on something cold and hard. Bolting upright, I perceive that I am on a stone floor in a dark room with the cathedral bells still clanging loudly in my ear.
Utterly confused, I feel panic begin to set in as I realize that not only do I not know where I am, I have no idea how I got here. In the distance I can make out light filtering in from a stained-glass window, creating a colorful speckle effect on the stone floor beneath it. I perceive a man standing beneath the window, analyzing its features from a technical standpoint and scrutinizing it from the point of view of the mason and the artisan. He appears “rather tall and very thin, extremely pale…with the paleness that belongs to fair people…he look[s] delicate but not ill. His hair is perfectly straight, and of a colourless kind.”
I then dazedly
make my way to the man, in hopes that he might lend some clue as to how I got
here and how I can get back home. To say that I feel very much like Lewis
“Excuse me, sir,” I say, which causes him to jump slightly. “I wonder if you might help me?”
As he turns to face me I am surprised to see that he is dressed oddly, as though he is a character in some kind of Charles Dickens play. He looks equally as surprised to see me, but politely answers my question without fuss, albeit with an English accent.
“Yes, erm, what seems to be the problem?”
“Well,” I answer, “this might sound a little crazy, but can you tell me where we are?”
“We are standing in Christchurch Cathedral,” he says, with a look of mild amusement and a raised eyebrow. His light grey eyes reflect a kind of shyness, but he seems to be in a good humour.
I rack my brain (still somewhat groggy from sleep and the fact that I am inexplicably not where I fell asleep) to process this new information. Suddenly it hits me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “What I meant to ask is what city are we in?”
Taken aback by this information, I am at a loss for words.
What am I going to do? I must be going crazy. But-I know I’m not crazy, so there must be some point to this. Maybe a friend set me up for some weird new game show. Well, I won’t give them the benefit of seeing me confused. I’m going to get to the bottom of this!
“So,” I say,
At this, the man nods.
“And what are we doing here?” I ask.
Still looking puzzled the man replies, “Well, I have just been commissioned to design a set of stained glass windows here. What about you? What is your purpose here?”
Thinking this must
be part of the game I reply, “Oh, I’m just here to get some research for a
class I’m taking…you know, to teach my classmates far away about the artwork at
“Well, Lauren, hello. My name is Edward Burne-Jones. Nice to meet you,” he answers politely.
I am caught slightly off guard at the sound of his name. From Professor Bump’s class I remember that the real Burne-Jones was a famous Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist, along with his good friend William Morris, and the famous painters John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Intrigued, I ask him what his plans for the windows are.
“Well,” he says, “I’m thinking of creating windows which tell the story of the lady you see in front of us.”
As he gestured to the window in front of us I am reminded of what he was doing when I first came upon him, and I allow my gaze to follow his in the direction of the window.
“Who is she?” I ask. “Why does this particular figure matter so much that she gets her own window? And, speaking of which, since she already has her own window, why are you going to create an entire set dedicated to her?”
thing’s first. The woman in the window,
which dates back to the 14th century, is Saint Frideswide, an
important figure in
“That makes sense,” I say, “but is that really important enough that she should get all this visual attention? I mean, surely there’s plenty written about her that someone could access if they really wanted to know who she was.”
“What better way is there to create a sense of place than by the visual--by artwork? Especially in a place such as this, where the light naturally creates beauty from the glass-colored windows?”
As he continues to
speak I can’t help but wonder at how this place, both
“To be honest with you, I have quite a strong fascination with the Middle Ages. It is because of them that I get my artistic imagination.” 
He takes his eyes from the window in front of us to look at me and says, “I mean by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a better light than any light that ever shone - in a land that no-one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful.”
“Okay, so I understand that art is important, but why not make the subject of the windows something contemporary? Does someone from over a thousand years ago really impact people’s lives today?”
“Of course they
do! Not only do they impact us, they can also shape us. And besides, if a story
continues to affect people, then essentially that story is modern, despite the
fact that it happened long ago. Things
that happen in the same place are essentially connected, because one thing
can’t help but affect another. For
instance, it is because of
“And what happened that made you change your mind?” I ask.
“Well, it’s a
complicated story, but when I came here in 1853, I met William Morris, who was
to become my greatest friend and partner. We discovered that we were disillusioned with
“So, what made you decide to start doing stained glass windows?” I ask him.
“My mentor, Dante Gabriel Rosetti-perhaps you know of him? It is because of him, chiefly, that I fell in love with the group of artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and why I decided to use my passion for art. ‘He taught me to have no fear or shame of my own ideas…to seek no popularity, to be altogether myself…not to be afraid of myself, but to do the thing I liked most.’”
“And that is to create art about the things you are passionate about?” I ask.
“Exactly,” he says.
Remembering seeing a picture of the finished product of the windows which Burne-Jones apparently has left to do, I ask “So what made you decide to do St. Frideswide windows again?”
“Well, as I said before, it is important to me to leave something behind, something important from the past. And I am inclined toward the ideals of romanticism and Christianity, both of which are abundant in St. Fridewide’s story. Also, I often feel that the story of St. Frideswide can be a parallel for what’s happening today. I’ll tell you the story of Saint Frideswide, to give you an idea of why she still matters in the 1850’s and will continue to matter in the future. My stained glass windows will reflect this as well, and help to give this cathedral a sense of place, in its past and present.
‘Imagine yourself in the mid-7th century, a bystander witnessing the actions of a beautiful, but very distraught woman…”
As he speaks, pictures flash in my mind of the finished product of his stained glass windows, giving life to his story and showing proof of his passion.
6 After Frideswide persuaded her father, King
6 She received a message from the King of Mercia, Algar, which “demand[s] her marriage.”6
“I won’t marry him!” Frideswide said to her servant, Helgatha. “I didn’t take a vow of chastity so I could run off with the Earl of Leicester!”
“I understand your sentiments, my lady,” answered Helgatha, “but what can you do? Your father’s spies have just learned that Algar plans to take you by force!”
Frideswide felt panicked. “What does my father suggest, Helgatha?”
“My lord believes the best course of action is for you to flee, my lady.”
“Flee?! Away from
the church that I built here, and the convent?
“I understand, my lady, but there’s no other choice! Algar will find you and take you, if you don’t make haste.”
“But where shall I go?”
“Your father is
sending you with two companions to the
At this, Frideswide packed a small bag of provisions, praying all the while.
Upon finishing, she ran outside to find her two companions waiting for her. The three ladies traveled under moonlight to the Thames, where in the (melancholy mist Lotus Eaters) they spotted a white light emanating from a small boat.
A strange young man dressed in white sat watching them move through the mist, and upon seeing their visages, motioned them gently to the boat.
The four traveled in silent concern, with ears perked for approaching horses and traveling men, as the water lapped gently against the swiftly moving vessel.
Upon reaching Abingdon, the three women descended from the boat with the help from the stranger. It was at this moment that the stranger finally spoke.
“Flee to the forest,” he instructed them. “It will shield you from the view of passersby and ill-meaning soldiers sent by Prince Algar, who continue to chase you.”
The three women turned towards the forest that covered most of Berkshire and stared back at them, its dark great oaks standing like sentinels in the late-night fog.
Frideswide turned to the young man to thank him for his services, but he appeared to have vanished. Knowing there was no time to spare, the women hurried to the cover of the trees.
Meanwhile, Algar and his men ravaged the land in anger, searching for Frideswide but coming up empty-handed. 6
Deep in the forest, Frideswide and her companions discovered a “small ivy-colored pig-sty”7 where they found shelter.
Upon hearing that Algar is approaching, Frideswide informed her companions that she must flee to Binsey.
“I’m sorry to leave you, my friends, but I must go! Algar and his men are ruthless, and I don’t want to put you in harm’s way. Don’t forget the stories we have heard of his actions. Therefore I must make haste-to Binsey I will go! Meet me there when you can!”
Algar learned of Frideswide's plans through frightened town folk and set out, determined once and for all to have his lady.
Frideswide is joined at Binsey by her two companions, who tell her of the news they have heard--Algar will not give up until he has her!
At Binsey, the town folk came to know Frideswide as a kind benefactor, and her “merciful deeds”6 become well-known.
Using her power of prayer, Frideswide was able to use a well at Binsey to cure and heal.
In hopes that his actions would help to convince Frideswide to finally come out of hiding, Algar “lays siege to Oxford.”6
Frightened of the news she has heard, Frideswide prays to the saints for help.
“Oh Lord, I am weak and tired. By the power of Saints Cecilia and Catherine, please help me somehow. He is so powerful and I am tired of running. Please, Lord—help me think of a way!”
As a result of her prayer, Algar is struck by a bolt of lightning and blinded.
Terrified and helpless, King Algar stumbled around aimlessly, crying and asking for the forgiveness of Frideswide if only for the return of his sight.
Frideswide felt pity on him, and after he promised to leave her alone should she restore his sight, she led him to her well, cleansed his eyes and prayed. Miraculously, Algar’s eyesight was returned to him. Bound by honor, he kept his promise to leave Frideswide alone for good.
Frideswide returned to her beloved Oxford, where she lived for many years before returning to Binsey and dying in October of 735.7
“After her death, her fame spread and the university was visited by students from all over in hopes of a miracle. There were some who went twice a year and held a procession to her shrine here, where they would feast with great solemnity for the Saint whose chastity and goodness triumphed over evil.”
As he finishes his story, I am reminded of Burne-Jones’ fascination and association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the impact that each member, as an artist, had on society during the Victorian Era. I wonder how elements of his Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities will be seen in the windows; after all, the Brotherhood changed art as I would know it in 2005.
“So, Mr. Burne-Jones, if you don’t mind me asking, do you feel your association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood will affect the way you create your windows?”
“Well,” he says, “I am reminded of the first time I came to know of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ever since my friend William Morris came running into my room with John Ruskin’s Edinburgh Lectures, I have held fast and been fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelite principle.”
“And what is that?” I ask him.
“In the Edinburgh Lectures, Ruskin said that:
Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature only. (Or, where imagination is necessarily trusted to, by always endeavouring to conceive a fact as it was really likely to have happened, rather than as it most prettily might have happened.)…Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.
“That quote, or that idea,
rather…That is how I plan to make these windows, and how I want to portray the
patroness saint of
Thinking on this, I realize that, “above all, underlying [his] high spirits and affectations, there was a tremendous sense of dedication to art, an earnest passion to achieve something worthy of the beauty of past times, despite the commercialism and philistinism of [his] age.”
This is something that I can apply to my life as well, perhaps not in the creation of art, but in the way I see the world around me and the way I appreciate the natural beauty of things.
Contemplating thus, I turn to look at the wall where Burne-Jones’ Saint Frideswide windows will be, turning over in my mind all that he has said. Just as I am about to turn back to him, all light in the cathedral vanishes, and I find myself bathed in darkness.
Somewhere in the distance I hear knocking and my name being called. I awaken to see the face of my roommate looming over me.
“Lauren! Wake up! I can’t believe you slept so late…we have class in thirty minutes. Let’s go!”
Word Count: 2958
Thompson, Edward P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary.
Pantheon Books, 1977. 42.
Russell. Sir Edward Burne-Jones.
Inc., 1993. 2-3.
David N. Royal
J. H. New Advent. 2003. The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Henderson, Philip. William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends.
McGraw-Hill, 1967. 16.
Thompson, Edward P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary.
Books, 1977. 49.
Thompson, Edward P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary.
Books, 1977. 42.