Art as Lived Religion: Edward Burne-Jones as Painter, Priest, Pilgrim, and Monk

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2007-04-25

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This dissertation presents the first analysis of religion in the life and work of the artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and establishes its centrality to his creative practice, identity, and reception. As a young man, he dreamed of taking holy orders and founding a monastic brotherhood. After forgoing the priesthood, he ornamented countless churches as an ecclesiastical designer and maintained a proclivity for painting Christian iconography, leading contemporaries to proclaim him one of the world's great religious artists. Today, however, using an outmoded lens that characterizes the nineteenth century as a period of precipitous religious decline, most art historians assume Burne-Jones reflects the conventional narrative of lost faith and doubt. Confusing institutional affiliation with personal belief, they have overlooked his unorthodox views, which defy the customary parameters of denomination or broad, theological movement, yet signal an ongoing, complex spiritual commitment. Moreover, misperceiving the secular as a necessary condition of modernity, some have expunged the religious from his art in an anxiety to legitimize his place in the modernist canon.

Methodologies of lived religion and practice, however, offer a new means of understanding Burne-Jones. Reconsidering belief as something often expressed beyond the confines of corporate worship and creed, as behaviors and discursive patterns occupying spaces of vocation, creativity, identity, and the everyday, demonstrates that art served as a vehicle for enacting his spiritual convictions. In the overlapping, and at times conflicting, guises of a priest mediating the divine, an artist-monk for whom labor is a devotional act, and a pilgrim seeking salvation, Burne-Jones cast his artistic practice as a religious vocation meant to improve the world through the redemptive power of beauty and, in the process, secure divine favor.

In addition to explicating the religious role art-making served for Burne-Jones, this project seeks to reclaim his altarpieces' liturgical functions and reconstruct how Christian audiences adapted and consumed his art for various didactic and devotional purposes. Such analysis underscores his objects' multivalency and the subjectivity of sacredness. Consequently, Burne-Jones's example provides evidence that religion was not necessarily disappearing in the Victorian age, but was being transformed and exercised in increasingly personalized ways.

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