Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has an exhibition of paintings from the Perseus Cycle by 19th Century artist Edward Burne-Jones. Never being educated in the classics, the subject of each picture would have remained a mystery if there had not been a card adjacent to each painting giving some explanation. Even then, all was not entirely clear.
Perseus kills the Gorgon and in doing so is able to free Andromeda, whom he goes on to marry, but only searching the Internet revealed from where the story had come. Perhaps there are people who know the story well, perhaps there are people who remember it from school days, or at least bits of it, perhaps there are many more who, like me, know nothing of the story. Burne-Jones’ painting becomes a very striking piece of art, but it doesn’t convey any story.
The Gallery has other Burne-Jones works, including “The Star of Bethlehem”. It is a huge canvas, dominating the room in which it hangs.
It is a picture full of interest. Joseph appears to have been off collecting brushwood for lighting a fire; an axe lies beside his right foot. Mary looks sullenly, almost suspiciously, at the visitors. The baby Jesus recoils at their sight, drawing close to his mother for protection. An androgynous angel hovers, not in the sky, but a few feet from the ground, like someone who has mastered the art of levitation. Caspar has lain his crown on the ground, a mark of respect to the king he has come to visit. Melchior has a battle sword of an improbably large size, the crown in his left hand dwarfing the little jar of frankincense. Balthasar is African and looks an altogether tougher character than the wimpish Melchior or elderly Caspar.
The Epiphany story has been told in churches for centuries. Perhaps there are still people who know it well; perhaps there are some whose memory gets jogged by the school nativity plays each year; but perhaps there are many more for whom the story has no meaning. The Star of Bethlehem has become as much a mystery as the tales of Perseus.
For those in the business of narrating the life that includes that story, that is a troubling prospect.