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Burne Jones - The Humanity Of The Divine

( Originally Published 1902 )



THE NATIVITY

AMONG modern painters no one has achieved a more enduring or splendid fame than Sir Edward Burne-Jones, whose work bids fair to be the glory of England, as that of Raphael is the permanent treasure of Italy. In galleries of modern paintings he has a distinguished place ; while the windows designed by him for churches and cathedrals in Oxford, London, Birmingham, Torquay, and elsewhere, are unsurpassed for intellectual suggestiveness and clearness and richness of spiritual vision. The Tate Gallery, in London, possesses many of his noblest creations, and there, perhaps better than in any other place, his works may be studied to advantage.

This artist, whose genius and whose execution so much remind one of Raphael, first saw the light in-Birmingham, in 1833. Born in a city where the practical predominates, and in a family in which, for several generations at least, I believe, there were neither artists nor poets, he was the possessor of exquisite natural gifts and of unique artistic faculty. He was originally intended for the Church, and, with that profession in mind, entered Exeter College, in Oxford. At the university he came into association with a number of rare spirits and, while there, through the influence of William Morris and Rossetti, gave up his former plans, abandoned his studies, and devoted himself to art, to which he seems to have had no conscious leaning before. Among his works are many which are the pride and glory of his country. While not a member of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, he was inspired by their ideals, and is usually regarded as be-longing to that school. Some of his works, like "Love Among the Ruins," " Fortune's Wheel," " King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," and " The Resurrection," are in the front rank of modern paintings. They well justify Principal Forsythe in characterizing the work of Burne-Jones as illustrating " the religion of preternatural imagination." I prefer to pass by his better-known paintings and take for study one of his windows, be-cause it conveys a message so distinctly spiritual.

In 1887 this artist designed two glorious windows for St. Philip's Church in Birmingham, one on the Nativity and one on the Crucifixion. I shall endeavor to interpret his thought in the former of these wonderful creations. In the foreground, lying on the stone floor of a rude cave, is the infant Jesus and above Him, with hands clasped and in an attitude of reverence, His mother is kneeling. On the right is Joseph, and near him three angels are pressing forward to look upon the mystery, to know which is the desire of heaven as well as of earth. Above the cave, in the distance and yet quite as conspicuous, are the shepherds among their flocks. Erect, with wonder and fear on their faces, they are looking at Gabriel and a choir of angels, who in the spaces above are filling the sky with their song. The Mother, Joseph, and the nearer angels are all gazing upon the Child, but the shepherds, in startled fear, are turned toward the angels, and for the moment are apparently unconscious of the glory of the Advent. " The background is a gloomy forest, which balances the dark sky veiled with weird wreaths of cloud."

I have selected this picture for interpretation because of the prominence which it gives to the shepherds, and to their awe and fear as they face the mystery and the glory. No other painting of the Nativity that I know makes so much of the human beings present at the birth of Jesus and so little of the Divine Child.

In every other representation of the Nativity or of the Holy Family or of the early childhood of Jesus, the Child is the most conspicuous person in the group. In the Sistine Madonna the wondrous boy rather than the wondering mother is the object of reverent attention. In the Madonnas and Holy Families of Murillo not even the seraphic beauty of the Virgin is so prominent or so winsome as the angelic face of her little son. But in Burne-Jones's window every other figure is more conspicuous than the Child. In this respect the artist has shown himself a true interpreter of life and history. At that time Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds must have occupied more space and been more in evidence than Jesus. It is well enough to think of shining crowns around the heads of the Mother and the Child, but as a matter of fact Jesus was simply like any other little Jewish boy, and the Mother like most other women of her age and station. Jesus now has the larger place in the world's thought and life, but the process by which He has grown to it has been slow. Not all at once, but by living Himself into humanity, He has proved Himself its consummate flower. He rose to His supremacy as other men reach theirs. " He grew in wisdom and knowledge." If He had achieved pre-eminence in any other way He would have been outside the human category. He is not so much an exception to the law of growth as its highest and finest illustration. The divinity of Christ shines clearest from His perfect humanity. That which is most human is most divine. The more closely He is seen to be allied to men the more helpful He becomes. His glory is in His similarity to others, not in His separation from them. If we would know the process by which we, too, will sometime attain strength of character we shall find an answer in that scarcely visible child in Burne-Jones's window, who, by the discipline of sorrow and pain, by the friction of experience, by collision with a hostile environment, was to be made perfect. The crown was not for the head of the infant Jesus but for that of the ascended Lord. Sceptres are for age, seldom for youth. Seers are usually old men who have learned to read the future in the past. This artist had rare discernment. The infant Christ was but a child. The Transfiguration and the Ascension may show the Saviour in His glory, but the Nativity should always show one who is yet to be perfected through suffering. Even the divine in humanity reaches its fullest manifestation by a painful pathway. It was a long distance from Bethlehem to Olivet, but no longer than it always is from babyhood to victory and power. The in-fancy of Jesus, like that of all men, was prolonged in order that His education might be completed. Childhood is the time for learning, and the more extended the child-hood of one who is truly a man the more opulent and efficient will be 'his maturity. Let us. thank Burne-Jones for emphasizing the helplessness and insignificance of the infant Jesus, for thereby we are the better enabled to appreciate the sympathy of His humanity.

An interesting characteristic of this painting of the Nativity is seen in the eagerness of the angels to explore the mystery surrounding the Child. This thought is also found in the First Epistle of Peter in these words—" Which things angels desire to look into." The Child whose attractions the angels feel, but whose significance they cannot appreciate, lies before them on the cold floor; and their problem is our problem. Most men feel that the eternal interests of humanity in some way are concerned with that manger-cradle. The unseen universe and the universal love there came into singular expression. Whatever explanation of this event may be most satisfactory, I am sure that few doubt that the Nativity was the birth of a new love and service for man, and that it was the beginning of a more pervasive devotion to God and the things of the Spirit. In the lowest the highest was revealed. God manifest in humanity, so that His presence and power may be felt, should be a subject for inquiry and reverence rather than for discussion and controversy. What-ever the Nativity may mean to others, it means for me a new and altogether unique revelation of God to man and of man to himself. The inexhaustible Christ, the One who years afterward would be so full of God that divinity would be exhaled from Him as perfume from flowers, or as light from the dawn, was hidden in that child in Bethlehem. The everlasting Father expressing Himself in and through humanity is the simplest, the most rational, the most natural, and the most supernatural fact which we ever face. You ask me to explain it? I can explain it no more than I can explain the firmament filled with countless stars. I can only wonder and adore. Those angels are symbolical. No other subject has so occupied human thought. For nearly two thousand years Jesus has been the centre of the world's profoundest inquiry, and the inspiration of its most heroic and self-sacrificing service. The more we think about Him the more we are compelled to continue our thinking. He always leads us to God, and always inspires new reverence for man. Who shall explain this mystery? How was it that that Child alone of all who have ever lived became for the world, and the ages, the inexhaustible fountain of moral and spiritual regeneration? Why has He, more than all the heroes, the martyrs, the philosophers, and the statesmen, filled men with a deep desire to be good and to do right? and how has it happened that His influence has increased for nearly two millenniums ? This surely is a problem. Who shall resolve it? The more these questions are pondered, the more inevitable seems the conviction of Paul : "In Him was the brightness of the Father's glory."

Of all the figures in the painting those which interest me most are the shepherds. They are not looking at the child, but at the singing angels, with Gabriel as leader of the choir. Why are they so conspicuous ? We may interpret the thought in the artist's mind by the one which it starts in our own. They seem to be there, first, to express the proneness of the average man to, dwell on things of least importance, and, second, because by such men was the message and mission of that child to be carried to the ends of the earth. Let us consider these suggestions.

The shepherds were in awe of angels when they might have looked into the face of Him who was to do more to lead the race toward the divine than any, and all others, who have ever lived.

Thus has it ever been in Christian history. Questions of least importance have had most attention. Men have taken sides on theories of the supernatural, and forgotten that the Christ has no place in the lives of any who do not go about doing good. Long and fierce have been the controversies about the Virgin birth. Belief in that has been made the condition of Christian fellowship ; but with Jesus the subject was of so little importance that He never mentioned it in any recorded utterance. How does faith in a literal or symbolical interpretation of the story of the birth of Jesus stimulate a desire to follow in His footsteps? Men have believed in the Immaculate Conception and tortured their fellow-men with horrible cruelty; they have disbelieved in it and had no more of love in their hearts than ice has of fire. Even to-day, it is hard to keep the popular attention where it belongs. The pulpit points men toward God, and they ask about Jonah; the preacher speaks to them of salvation from sin, and they ask about the Virgin birth; he declares the self-evident truth that all who do wrong must suffer, and they debate about the endlessness of punishment; he pleads with men not to violate the entreaties of the love which found expression on the cross, and they say they cannot believe in the miracle of the swine and the devils. Why do so many put the emphasis of their thought in the wrong place ? Why not allow Jesus to interpret His own message ? He asked men to believe in Him, not in the thousand and one things which were to be said about him. Again I ask, Why are so many wildly enthusiastic over current fads which will have their day and cease to be, like those of the Middle Ages 2 Why are so many daft over their own imaginations, when they might come into direct touch with the everlasting love ? Those who ought to know better announce them-selves as disciples of delusions which vanish at the touch of real science, and turn from the deep realities which alone can satisfy those who must live in eternity as well as in time.

The shepherds were in awe of angels, when they might have been looking upon the face of Him who was to be the Saviour of the world.

But to such men as they were, the meaning of the mystery was to be disclosed, and by such the glorious gospel of love and forgiveness was to be preached.

In that picture the artist has brought together three most suggestive facts. He who was to be the world's Saviour was born as an ordinary child in the commonest of circumstances ; the men by whom He was to reach His place and power were afraid of angels and unconscious of Him; and yet by Him even they were to be transformed so that it would be the passion of their lives to tell the world about Him. Thus weakness and ignorance were to be used to fill the earth with light and love. The Child was to become the Saviour, and the shepherds teachers and preachers.

The wonder of that transformation who can exaggerate? The disciples and apostles, in culture and station, were just such men as the shepherds. 'When their eyes were opened, and they discerned the truth in its proper proportions and relations, they became evangels to the world. The result of their preaching is everywhere evident, for on the day which celebrates the Nativity, in almost every land, a strange glow thrills millions of hearts. Even the season of the year cannot return without starting a desire to do good and to be better. The children feel it; their elders are made young again by it; even the wicked are touched by generous impulses. How may we brighten the lot of those who have no friends? Let us make the prisoners happy for one day in the year! Let the children of the slums be fed for once! And this great emotion of gladness, which is most intense at the Christmas time, fills the hearts of increasing multitudes all the days. Where tears fall they are wiping them away; where hearts are heavy they are sympathizing; • where any are yielding to sin, they are trying to save. People with the Christ-like spirit in every land are rearing schools, colleges, asylums, hospitals, binding up broken hearts, speaking cheering words to the despondent, and assuring their fellow-men that none are orphans, none companionless, none have sins too black for pardon, and that the love of God is as broad as the universe, as deep as hell, and as true as Christ. The number of those who hear the calls of our common humanity and respond to them, multiplies from year to year. The poorest and weakest as well as the richest and noblest are linking hands in their effort to help in bringing a better day. Where did this movement start 2 This world seems like a midnight, through the middle of which is flowing an ever-broadening stream of light. Where is the fountain of that river of light ?

In Burne-Jones's window there may be seen a very human Child, and from that tiny Child, before whom a peasant mother is bowing, all the gladness and glory have come. He is the fountain of the light and the love which are making a brighter day and a better world.



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