An Interpretation by Phillip Medhurst
To fully understand the meaning of Burne-Jones’s Days of Creation sequence, we need to appreciate what is unique about the events described in the opening chapters of Genesis: namely, no human beings were present. Moses, then – the traditional author of this account – had to depend on information revealed directly to him from God. So, what is depicted here is, not so much the events of creation themselves as the revelation of those events. The angels are not God’s agents in His acts of creation, but rather God’s agents in revealing the events at which no Man was present. Burne-Jones has chosen a non-biblical symbol (unless, like the apostle Paul, we “see in a glass, darkly”): the crystal ball. But rather than being an instrument with which to divine the future, it is instead a device through which we can discern the past. And, as each seraph presents each depiction of each event, the celestial agent of revelation is anointed with a tongue of flame Indicating the presence of that same divine Holy Spirit which inspired the creation of the Scriptures. Meanwhile, we, the observers, are invited, not so much (as in the case of Moses) to re-tell the story, but to recall it from our existing knowledge of Scripture. And, because we already know that story, our belief – for our faith is the only way we can corroborate the events for ourselves – is rewarded by a dose of Beauty as well as Truth. So, our faith makes the paintings collectively a vision of Heaven as well as of our world encapsulated in the globes. In this way, to paraphrase Keats, Truth is Beauty, and Beauty Truth – a sublime reflection of the aesthetic (and was it also the religion?) of the artist in his time.
The finished gouaches were derived from original stained-glass designs. Burne-Jones’s first developed the idea of the series under the auspices of the decorative-arts firm that he had helped found with his friend William Morris. Its initial outcome in 1870 was a stained-glass window in for All Saints Parish Church, Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire; the six small Days of Creation lights form the middle tier of the window, above three much larger lights showing Shahrach, Meschach, and Abednego. The watercolours, which follow the basic designs of the Middleton Cheney windows fairly closely, seems to have been planned in 1872 and executed in 1875-76. The windows were originally made in grisaille and gold for Middleton Cheney in 1870 and then in colour for St. Editha’s Church in Tamworth, Staffordshire in 1874. Subsequently larger versions were made for Manchester College, Oxford in 1895 (see photo below). The stained glass windows were all installed by the firm of Morris & Co. of Merton Abbey.