'Astrologia' (1865)

Edward Burne-Jones: Painting the Perfect Virgo as Vesta

Desideratum (1873)
Desiderium: a study for the masque of Cupid (1873)
The Tree of Forgiveness
The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-82)

Some artists creep into public consciousness surreptitiously but once they have slipped in, they annex the available space and you cannot ever see paintings in the same way again. One of those is Edward Burne-Jones, born on this day, August 28th  in 1833. He was a Virgo sun sign with the moon in Aquarius- time unknown- and that sun is 4 degrees of Virgo. It nestles at the core of the stellium in Virgo happening at the current new moon on August 30th, 2019. This makes it all the more timely for him to be reconsidered as I  suggest he has a layer of astrology in his work as we will see. You may not know the name Burne-Jones, but you may recognise the meticulously crafted paintings. His popularity is intriguing given the narrow scope of references to a particular medieval mythology, which is terribly English- there is very little sunshine in Burne-Jones’ world. In the landscape of Arthurian legend, it is mostly twilight, both alluring and strangely melancholic, even sinister, yet always elegantly composed. An example of this is ‘The Last Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon’ (1881-8).

Fashion inspiration
PreRaphaelite inspired fashion

I saw my first Burne Jones work on a trip to the Lady Lever art gallery near Liverpool;  it was a fine specimen called ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ (1882) an early painting with more than a reverent nod to Michaelangelo and Mantegna. I knew then that to view his paintings is to understand something beyond the flesh. The Burne-Jones world is revealed in a way that gives its knightly idealism great substance, making that elusive feeling quite palpable.  There was mojo to his imagination. He said he wanted his paintings to be ‘like a beautiful dream.’  The ethereal beings depicted within them have even had an influence on the  fashions of the day- late 19th century-  with the store Liberty’s leading the way. These styles have even been recycled 100 years later, showing up again in the work of  fashion designers John Galliano, Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh. In people’s mind Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite which is only very loosely true. He was his own man and developed a unique style, though he was fully trained and supported by one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Dante Gabriel Rosetti and was called the ‘last’ Pre-Raphaelite by biographer Fiona McCarthy.

But it is  also worth considering  him as representative of the British Aesthetic movement as he was held in high regard by the European Symbolists who felt a kinship with him. His work was always impeccably well designed, but it was cold and warm at the same time:  ethereal yes, but also sensual and we can see this tension in his chart.  This ‘dream world’ he wanted to create has some punch to it.  The Moon happens to be conjunct Uranus in the sign of Aquarius adding quirkiness to the smooth flow of that dream.This Moon conjunct Uranus created  a frisson of tension between the lure of the medieval ideal and the day-to-day shifts of emotion. Somehow this is captured in his paintings which suggest troubling undercurrents. This was evident in his life and loves; he often fell for his life models, but at the same time as being married- which was to prove difficult and bring grief.

Burne-Jones by Cundall Downes &Co 1864
Burne-Jones by Cundall Downes & Co, 1864.

Though from a poor, motherless family, he went up to Oxford and there met the curly haired William Morris (an Aries) and together they mourned the state of the world and its modern mass-produced goods and conveyor-belt methods. Together they ached for a time before, when handcrafted items still mattered and had purpose in interiors. Burne-Jones instinctively developed what to an astrologer’s eye was a truly authentic Virgoan archetype. He was patient, quiet, humble, often shy, but always sincere. People loved him for his genuine appreciation of them. He was also a highly-skilled draughtsman, painstaking in his drawings and paintings. His health was weak as he was often sensitive, sickly, and badly in need of fresh air, but his strength lay inside him. He determined to ignore criticism and be himself, devoting all his attention to his own inner chivalrous medieval world which eventually reached a public who grew to love it too.

He said: “The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint. Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul. Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails.”  This is a Virgo on the verge of having completed all the work of Virgo and is ready to graduate to being a Libra. He would have spread his warmth among many acquaintances and many said he was great company in spite of his monk-like habits.

Alignments in his chart

Burne-Jones Natal Chart -astrotheme.com
Burne-Jones Natal Chart -astrotheme.com

Burne-Jones has Saturn and Mars, two hard planets conjunct in the soft, supportive and effective sign of Virgo, so any mention of his industrious nature taps into this constructive/productive energy. It doubtless called upon his immense discipline and force of intention. This conjunction is trine to Neptune in Capricorn. Neptune rules art, but Capricorn is the master of industry.This is trine to Chiron in Taurus – granting further beneficence of mastering a craft which was vital to his mind-body-spirit health. This was his core belief that he staked his life on – that beauty was the greatest virtue, and that was also his wound and lesson.  This trio of points in Virgo, Capricorn and Taurus creates a grand trine in Earth signs- solid foundation for an artist to produce a impressive body of work which he did. This formation is considered very lucky according to Pam Gregory, as it gives practicality and manifestation and brings high ideals down to earth, built for the long term. What should be noted also is what this grand trine might do for the native – the sickly Ned Jones started life penniless and with zero prospects; he was a complete unknown, and yet he ended it with multiple lucrative projects coming his way, and was publicly celebrated at Westminster Abbey having achieved the accidental goal of becoming a national treasure. With strong fixity above other modalities and a strong showing in Earth signs, he stuck it till the end and his achievement was long lasting.

The Briar Wood (1885-1890)
The Briar Wood (1885-1990)

I am including Chiron in this trine as Burne-Jones work has a distinctive Chironic character in that it teaches us something about being on the verge of sadness, tinged with autumn colours, that inner shift that is about to tumble because of an Achilles’ heel. His weakness was falling for his models – the main one being, Maria Zambaca. She appears in several paintings including ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ and she basically is the muse for his rendering of a series of paintings about the mythological, Psyche. In Victorian England the symbolism of ‘The Briar Rose’ meant ‘I wound to heal’ so it must naturally belong to the domain of Chiron. Also, wherever sirens appear e.g. Circe, there is projection going on- the lesson for men is to acknowledge their ‘anima’ or female soul and for women to recognise their ‘animus’- their male soul- and everyone on a spectrum in between. Burne-Jones’s figures seem to fuse the two directly into equilibriated souls whose harmony of body and soul, male and femaleness, shines through.

Cupid delivering Psyche ( 1867) )
Cupid delivering Psyche ( 1867)

Burne-Jones’ moon presides calmly in Aquarius, so it is able to see the distant view of humanity, but it is also conjunct Uranus in its modern  home sign of Aquarius which de-stabilises that super-cool sheen with sudden irruptions. This volatile placement would explain why he was considered extremely charming but also nervy and erratic. He could snap into reverse moods and be unpredictable. He was even outspoken and people didn’t quite know where they were with him. Critic and patron, John Ruskin, himself an Aquarian, and just as difficult to pin down, said of Burne-Jones it was like ‘counting clouds.’ Every cloud in Burne-Jones mind went into that Capricorn factory with Neptune there and produced a painting. This same Moon/Uranus in Burne-Jones’ chart opposes Mercury in Leo. The way he spoke had an edge and he could dash off vicious sketches as easily as paint lofty works of art. People said he was witty and so nice to be with, but he was also sharp-minded and prevaricated a lot. This Mercury in Leo is trine to Neptune in Capricorn. This adds a touch of the chameleon: he was friends with many actors and according to biographer, McCarthy could act himself. He could switch from acting severe as a monk to goofing and romping with the kids as a conjurer at garden parties. His transformations were speedy and entertaining.

Through the Looking Glass Richard Idemon book cover
‘Through the Looking Glass’ Richard Idemon book cover

Uranus opposite Mercury ( and trine Neptune) is also a tad equivocal. Some of his paintings had titles like ‘The Heart Desires’ ‘The Hand Refrains’ and but ‘The Soul Attains’ – the series about Pygmalion is the act of divine creation every artists aspires to. So it depicts manifestation – the way people talk of ‘co-creation- offering more echoes of that grand Earth trine. But there is also a lot of suppressed sexuality here smouldering under the surface, making him a precursor to the moderns.  Victorian England art lovers recognized it on a subliminal level. Burne- Jones’s personal foibles must have pitched this relationship to sex just right to be suggestive without being totally beyond the pale. There are stirrings of lust of which he said he was ‘afraid’.

Younger artist Aubrey Beardsley came to Burne-Jones in the same way he himself had gone to Rosetti, as a young protege, but when Burne-Jones noted Beardsley’s increasing tendency to indulge lustful caricatures, beyond mere innuendo, Burne-Jones drew the Virgoan line in the sand and they parted company.  This was not prudishness, but he noted sadly that Beardsley’s drawings were provocative taking the erotic imagery too far. He said it represented a kind of despair. A feeling that perhaps he knew very well.  A Virgo does not indulge this way, but does arrange sensuality into ultra-neat packages that can be read off a check list, but he sublimated this same lust into numerous enigmatic often oblong paintings. Neptune in Capricorn brings a whiff of hot productive steam to the steeliness-at it rests opposite Venus in Cancer where it stirs up tension and nebulousness of feelings- some paintings had only the vaguest of narratives which infuriated the Victorian critics who demanded every painting be a depiction of an already-known mythological subject.

Vesta: the Sacred Flame

The Golden Stairs (1880)
The Golden Stairs (1880)

I connect the archetype of Virgo to the asteroid Vesta. She is the keeper of the sacred flame and Jones’ reverence for a world of medieval-inspired romance had that  Vestal quality of saintly devotion. You can now find Vesta in contemporary charts as her profile is on the rise among those who resonate with that energy. Burne-Jone’s asteroid Vesta was a morally responsible one- placed in Capricorn- and therefore it was capable of great achievements, as he proved with incredible levels of productivity and concentration on his work, but it also opposed his Venus in Cancer giving difficulties to overcome.

He sought to bring people to an aesthetic ecstasy through his paintings. Vesta lends motivation for things others cannot see or value in the same way. Practically all the signature figures in his paintings have that girl-boy look, and they could be depictions of the archetypal Vesta, the high priestess of purity. Whichever painting you view, these figures dressed simply and without fuss, occupy centre space. In a painting such as the ‘Golden Stairs’ (1876-1880) you see these beings not belonging to reductive material world.  But the interesting twist is that each one is a portrait of an individual female who actually existed in Burne-Jones’ life – his ‘type’ so to speak. Attention to detail is the hallmark of the Virgo native, but it also ‘makes the dream real’ as he did not make up these figures in his imagination- they existed around him in everyday life. There is an evocative poetry in  painting and its themes could refer to musical harmonics, perhaps the phi ratio of the golden mean. He celebrated this beauty of his own wife Georgina in a picture called ‘Flamma Vestalis’ (1896)  and ‘Desiderium’ (1873) which have this non-corporeal charm. The figure  with the swept back hair is almost astral rather than concrete would make a good representative of Vesta.

The Planets Series: Artist as Astrologer (Click for full image in the gallery)

Pictures by Burne-Jones often show up on the front covers of astrology books and we may wonder why they seem perfectly suited to the study of the stars, especially the matching of astrology with depth psychology as on the books of Richard Idemon. Burne-Jones even painted ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ (1883) now in the Musee D’Orsay. He said of the Wheel  “it comes to fetch each of us in turn.” This painting could and has stood in place of the Tarot card number X of the same name. Many artists inspired by the Renaissance inevitably drew on the hidden fountain of sources that ignited that cultural upsurge – this included knowledge of astrology. He even painted a vision of a goddess ‘Astrologia’ (1865) -this was long before the asteroid Urania was discovered and named. His asteroid Urania is in Gemini by the way. The image shows a young lady in profile, at her study desk with an open book. She is gazing deeply into a reflective object completely absorbed. Its globe-shape is doubtless the entire world in her hands- a reference to mundane astrology and the reflection a reference to astrology’s capacity for soul-searching and to deepen understanding of the self.

Jupiter
Jupiter from Cristoforo de Predis (1470)

Jones and Morris were commissioned to do windows for Torre Abbey and they decided on depicting the Planets- the most visible form of astrologyin art history – shown as personifications of these energies. De Girolami de Cheney (2017) outlines these works in a study of the. They must have required the entire ritual of planetary alignment – a process of tuning in to the energies of the traditional planets through meditation and astrological timing. He prepared cartoon drawings of each planet to recreate on glass panels: the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. He added the Morning and Evening Star- which is Venus in her Hesperus-evening and Lucifer-morning phases. He had to contemplate the celestial spheres and drew from ancient source books – one was a book ‘De Spherae’ (c1470) which had illustrations by Cristoforo de Predis. These contain the symbolic correspondences of the planets to their signs, e.g. in the image of Luna is the crab, the Sun has a lion, Venus includes a bull, and in the image of Saturn there is a scythe- all the classic associations.

So here is this artist who because of the longing for a period prior to all things modern, chanelled a more subtle world full of astrological sources and presented it to us in visual form. He was well equipped to delineate these ideas in a pleasing way honoring the sources and symbols found in works such as ‘Hyginus Astronomicon’ from the second century. All this lends weight to the esoteric nature of his Virgo that allowed him to tap into the divine poetry that integrates in his work. It is derived from a profoundly intuitive understanding of his subject – and viewers respond to that.

Stained glass St Margaret's
Stained glass St Margarets

In 1898 when he died of influenza, the state funeral at Westminster Abbey granted to him was an honour not given to any previous English artist- unlike Blake who died forgotten. He had reached a climax of a life of work extremely well-honed. A Virgoan perfectionist, he could stand back and say he handled it with consummate efficiency. His skills ranged to stained glass.  If you ever happen to be in Rottingdean near Brighton, and have an hour to spare, visit the church of St Margaret’s where there are Burne-Jones stained-glass windows. He had links with the area and was related to Rudyard Kipling who had a house there.

Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones

His mentor was the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti (a Taurus) who said of Burne-Jones he was ‘a hand’ painting ‘the soul’. While Mercury (the hand) rules Virgo, his Mercury is in Leo  square to Chiron which locks it in to that Earth trine. This allowed him to tell these grand narratives of the heroic in a way that is memorable. The depiction of adolescent  figure and there are many littered throughout his work is a signature figure. The asteroid Hebe ( the adolescent) is conjunct asteroid Klio – the muse of history, gifting him with a talent for deep historical research not just with the winsome creatures in the paintings, who look androgynous, but in Burne-Jones’ work the search for purity, virtue, and perfection is there.  He depicts things in anticipation  of the climax, or past its consummation, never directly as in the Briar Rose series (1885-1890) where he depicted quatrains from a  poem by William Morris. As mentioned, this type of rose had a secret and very Chiron-like symbolism, ‘wounding to heal’. Chiron is linked to Virgo because Virgos find a way to heal to provide service in practical ways.

His paintings, while beautiful and dream-like, also contain a hint of the sinister. He believed that human nature was diminished without beauty and art was the way to enhance our sense of beauty to make us more human. The sum total of Virgo’s knowledge might be this readiness to move on to the next sign and deliver it harmoniously as a Libran would. He didn’t just talk about this idea, but proved it repeatedly in the paintings he left behind. This leap of the imagination was beautifully-crafted and each work has an internal harmony of its own. They have sinuous lines, and arabesque compositions, which compact the space in a curiously self-involved way leading back other parts of the painting. The space embodied in his paintings was not a real space, so its elegance is based on the flattened frieze style of tapestry work. They have an allure still hard to define- though as if painted by a mystically-inclined astrologer perhaps?

It also means we can still see the angels he envisaged- yet they are earth angels and there’s probably one near you right now, if only we could see through Jones’ eyes. A good way to end is to consult the Sabian symbol for the degree of his sun 5 of Virgo:  This is a ‘A man dreaming of nature spirits’ hinting at a supremely clairvoyant individual who could see through and beyond the material world in which he also happened to be very grounded.

 

©Proteus Astrology, August 28th, 2019

Kieron Devlin

Sources

Fitzgerald, P. (1975) Burne-Jones London:  Hamish Hamilton.

De Chirolami Cheny, L. (2017) ‘Edward Burne-Jones’s The Planets: Musical Spheres and
Visions of a Benevolent Cosmos’ Journal of Literature and Art Studies, July 2017, Vol. 7, No. 7, 812-868
doi: 10.17265/2159-5836/2017.07.004 Available at:

Click to access 59152d832dc6c.pdf

Watch the video version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8x4BJiiCqNY&t=398s

 

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