In Edward Burne-Jones’ Love Among the Ruins, 1870-73, Christina Makri sees human love and nature survive the collapse of the world, and argues that we, too, will find comfort in the chaos of the pandemic.
In times of turmoil and isolation, it is natural to turn to art for solace. Personally, I have always found comfort in Edward Burne-Jones’ works, so the decision to pick this particular piece as my lockdown companion was an easy one. In Love Among the Ruins (1870-3) a couple are shown sitting amidst the rubble of a lost city. The lovers fondly embrace one another as they reflect on the ephemeral and volatile nature of the world. The two find solace in each other’s presence, yet, in their eyes, a sense of melancholy is reflected.
Around the lovers, sweet briar roses have blossomed. The depiction of these specific flowers is far from random, especially when considering that Burne-Jones has titled an entire series of paintings after them (The Legend of Briar Rose, 1885-1890). The artworks in the aforementioned sequence are all inspired by the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, so it is likely that the artist is linking the current painting to his previous illustrations. One could argue that with Love Among the Ruins Burne-Jones is making a statement regarding the fortitude of nature. He seems to be contrasting the bright blooming roses with the city’s wreckage, accentuating the fact that while the human empire has been brought to ruins, nature still stands undisturbed. It is also worth noting that the assigned meaning behind sweet briar roses is “I wound to heal”, a connotation that is strongly correlated to the painting’s underlying message. The artwork’s symbolism, however, doesn’t end there. Behind the couple, two medieval arches are visible. Perhaps their presence is meant to allude to the passage of time, in which case the two doors can represent pathways that lead either towards the future or the past. Otherwise, the embellished arches portray entrances to the dreamworld or roads that safely guide daring travellers back to reality.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is considered to be one of Britain’s most notable Pre-Raphaelite artists, and yet, throughout his career, he received plenty of criticism that targeted his improper technique, as well as the absence of realism in his art. However, what he lacked in formal training, Burne-Jones more than made up for by constructing an ethereal atmosphere and infusing an unparalleled dreamlike essence in his art. The artist prioritized aesthetics above all else. His objective was not to create accurate representations of the world, but to weave romantic dreams and birth vivid, expressive visions. Burne-Jones carefully nurtured his creations and graced them with alluring and uncanny features. This tender approach is what allowed the artist’s paintings to reach a status of divine beauty and transcend all constraints that realism would otherwise impose.
Love Among the Ruins is one of Jones’ most renowned works and has been praised by both critics and viewers for its ambiguous and unearthly quality. The powerful, vibrant painting was given its title from the eponymous poem by Robert Browning and is believed to reference the turbulent love affair between Edward Burne-Jones and his muse, Maria Zambaco. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the first watercolour version of the artwork was severely damaged in 1893 and Burne-Jones ended up creating an additional, almost identical oil painting the following year. However, in 1898, the once considered irreparable version was restored. Quickly, it established its rightful place as the original painting and ended up being the one that was most often displayed in exhibitions around the world. Perhaps this intriguing turn of events, although unintentional, further promotes the painting’s profound meaning. The sudden and distressing nature of destruction is perfectly highlighted, while the powerful spirit of rebirth is emphasized and celebrated.
The imposing painting portrays the lovers holding each other tightly as if they’ve finally reunited after a long separation. They draw strength from one another and they’re both pleased and relieved to have survived the destruction of the golden city. Among the ruins, their warm, passionate feelings remain unscathed. Yet, from this precious scene, a sorrowful sentiment emerges. A debilitating fear slowly creeps up on the minds of both the couple and the viewer. The inevitable thought arises that a time will come when even this passionate, seemingly indestructible affair will crumble and become one with the wreckage.
Afterall, that is often the effect of the dismantlement of the familiar. Once structures and buildings collapse, they take with them the false sense of permanence that humans have associated with them. The quiet comfort and reassurance their presence once offered fades, so people are forced to question their own footing with reality and confront a harsh, but undeniable truth. The unpredictable and ephemeral nature of the world becomes harder to ignore and consequently our place within it feels uncertain and unstable. In Love Among the Ruins, the couple are forced to face the looming shadow that often follows the sentiments of happiness and hope. Amidst the loss and confusion, the two have found happiness and comfort, yet those feelings of salvation and relief also serve as stern reminders of all there is to lose.
Before writing this piece, I was content to just marvel at the painting. I never stopped to consider what the underlying reason behind my attraction was. But now, I understand that which my conscious mind had previously failed to perceive. Edward Burne-Jones doesn’t conceal or shy away from difficult, complex emotions, but boldly illustrates them. Yet, the artist’s principal intent isn’t to underline the pain, but to highlight the healing process and the rebirth that follows. In his artwork, he establishes a simple but hard-to-swallow truth, which is that all things end. At the same time, he offers a gentle reminder to appreciate that which is still standing; he encourages us not to dread new beginnings. From the painting, words of comfort seem to emanate. They resemble hushed whispers spoken by a friend, consoling and reassuring the viewer that they won’t have to weather turbulent times alone.
It’s fascinating how an artist whose paintings have received such strong criticism regarding their lack of realism can so accurately depict the essence of the world. Through his dreamlike representations, Burne-Jones actually succeeds in presenting a raw and honest view of reality and makes actuality more palatable in the process. Through the painting, the artist establishes the fact that things perpetually shift and unexpectedly end. And while love is not immune to change, it can act as a beacon of light, a pillar of strength and can facilitate the transition towards “a new normal”. That is a timeless message, which just so happens to be more relevant now than ever before. By choosing to accept it, we, too, can find comfort amidst the chaos, and love among the ruins.
About Christina Makri
Christina Makri is an MPhil student of Neuroscience. She’s the president of the Art Society at Lucy Cavendish and an editor for the Cavendish Chronicle. She’s currently based in Cambridge, but completed her undergraduate degree in London. Her present research centres on the influence of bilingualism on sound perception. When she’s not working on her experiments, she spends most of her time writing stories or composing music. Christina loves to discuss art, music, mythology, (Japanese & Korean) literature and ghosts. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @aliXe_music
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.