Drawing with stones

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Work took me to Rome earlier this week. That sounds glamorous, but I was there for a ridiculously short time – counting from when I stepped off the airport train at Termini until when I arrived back at Fiumicino, I was there for a total of eighteen hours, about six of which were spent sleeping. Twelve hours in Rome was still enough, however, to visit a place I’ve been wanting to see for years – the church of St Paul’s within the Walls. This probably sounds more than a little strange – why, in a city crammed with more Renaissance and Baroque churches than you can shake a stick at, would I be so keen to visit an American church of such recent (1873) vintage?

Well, here’s why.

These mosaics are the only ecclesiastical decorative scheme Edward Burne-Jones ever did*, and on this evidence, it’s a crying shame he was never commissioned to do any others. Working within an architectural framework obviously appealed to a sense of drama that, for whatever reason, he didn’t give free rein to in his paintings; walking up the aisle and watching the Annunciation (in a desert landscape) peel back to reveal the Tree of Life, which in turn seems to lift to reveal Christ in glory beneath the vault of Heaven swarming with angels, is a breathtaking experience, even in the poor lighting conditions on my visit.

But what does all this have to do with drawings? Well, the answer is simple: the mosaics began life as drawings. To be accurate, large-scale watercolours like this one at the V&A:

Edward Burne-Jones, design for The Tree of Life (1888)

For years, this particular watercolour was the only visual reference I had for the St Paul’s mosaics, and what struck me when I saw the mosaics for the first time was how very draughtsmanlike they are. I must admit I’ve always found mosaics hard to love – I admire the craftsmanship but, whether they’re Roman, Byzantine or later (Boris Anrep’s mosaic at the National Gallery springs to mind) I find them stiff, cold, lifeless. Perhaps it’s because Burne-Jones was a painter and draughtsman first, perhaps it’s because he worked with particularly skilled craftsmen, but his mosaics preserve almost perfectly the clarity, fluidity and sinuousness of his drawn line. There’s a stillness to his figures, as befits an artist whose heart lay in the Quattrocento, but it’s an weightless, infinitely delicate stillness that you feel would be disturbed by the merest puff of air, not a stony, frozen one. The mosaics don’t feel like a translation of a drawing into another medium, they feel like drawings that just happen to be made with thousands of tiny coloured stones.

If St Paul’s within the Walls were in Britain, it would probably have become a place of pilgrimage for all of Burne-Jones’s admirers. As it is, it’s firmly off the tourist route, tucked away from a busy street a short walk from Termini. If you find yourself in Rome, fed up with the bombast of St Peter’s, I commend it to you.

*For the present purposes I’m not counting the many stained glass windows and painted tiles he designed – I mean major architectural schemes.

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