This remarkable work occupies the boundary between painting and sculpture and was the centerpiece of one of Burne-Jones's most ambitious narrative schemes.
In 1875 the young conservative MP Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), who would later become Prime Minister, commissioned a cycle of narrative works for the drawing room of his London home. Burne-Jones selected the legend of the Greek hero Perseus, devising a sequence of ten scenes to tell this story – six were to be oil paintings and the remaining four were to be low relief panels. All ten were to be set in an elaborate framework of acanthus scrolls which would run around the upper walls of the drawing room. However, this work was not well-received when exhibited in 1878 and Burne-Jones abandoned the remaining reliefs, meaning this is the only example.
Explore the Painting
Use the links below to navigate around the painting to discover more about story of Perseus and the Graiae and how this work was made.
Perseus was a hero from Greek mythology. He was a demi-god – the son of the god Zeus and Danaë, the human daughter of the King of Argos. Burne-Jones concentrated on the most familiar episodes of the Perseus legend – the hero's search for the gorgon Medusa, his killing of her and his rescue of the beautiful Andromeda.
The eye of the Graiae
The Graiae were three perpetually old women who were sisters to the gorgons and had only one eye and one tooth between them. Between his fingers, Perseus holds their single eye. As the women passed the eye between them Perseus stole it, using the promise of its return to make them tell him the way to find Medusa.
This long Latin text tells Perseus's story. The letters are carved mahogany and have been gessoed, gilded and pinned to the oak panel individually. A close examination reveals the chalk lines that were drawn to guide the original placing of the letters. Burne-Jones used a poetic narrative of the legend taken from the version written by his good friend William Morris (Earthly Paradise, 1868-70).
Painted faces and hands
The faces and hands of the figures have been painted in oil directly on to the oak panel and the texture of the wood shows through this paint layer. Burne-Jones left the grainy surface of the rest of the panel unpainted, creating a barren background for the image.
The bodies, limbs and clothing of the figures have been modeled in low-relief gesso. Burne-Jones worked with the highly-skilled gesso specialist Osmund Weeks to create this extraordinary example. Gesso is traditionally made of rabbit skin glue and chalk. It was applied wet and then when dry carefully carved and incised to create form and detail. The gesso was then painted (red beneath the gold areas and dark grey beneath the silver) before gold and silver leaf was applied.
- 10 October 2011
- 6 April 2007