I’ve always been interested in both medieval art and 19th century art. When I first saw the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, recalling the dark ages yet strangely modern, mixed with hints of the Realism and Romanticism so crucial to the 19th century, I was transfixed. I’ve made pilgrimages to museums and exhibitions to see Pre-Raphaelite art, and I look for the Brotherhood’s pieces in every museum I go to. It’s fitting that my favorite object at the Princeton University Art Museum is the museum’s main Pre-Raphaelite work on display: the Saint Cecilia stained glass window (ca. 1900), designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by Morris & Co.
Saint Cecilia sticks out like a sore thumb since it’s surrounded by paintings; the other stained glass works in the museum are in the medieval art gallery. It’s a clear ode to a medium revered in the medieval times, used in the soaring cathedrals we associate with that era. Burne-Jones and William Morris of Morris & Co., who were friends, were both passionate about reviving medieval craft methods as an artistic revolt against the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping Britain.
The visual content of Saint Cecilia takes the viewer back to the past, too. The flat, long style of Saint Cecilia makes her resemble, in terms of composition, the women in paintings by Botticelli, and the tapestry-like background is reminiscent of Gothic Italian art.
The model for Saint Cecilia, however, is clearly a modern woman, which makes the work so strange. She would not have been considered traditionally beautiful earlier in the 19th century—in fact, she reflects how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their models effectively changed Western beauty standards. The models, like Lizzie Siddal, even became the first “supermodels” in a sense, popularizing large, strong facial features and thin bodies as opposed to the languid delicateness that had been idealized in Britain for centuries previously. To me, their beauty is still what society considers ideal in the 21st century (for better or worse—to me, these women are gorgeous and more interesting-looking than most of the courtly women in earlier British portraiture by artists like Reynolds and Gainsborough).
Saint Cecilia is beautiful and reverent, yet fundamentally awkward – one needs only to glance at it to notice the woman’s odd proportions, and the strange prominence of her feet. It takes us back to an idealized, mythical past but also reminds us of the present. These contrasts working together are what make Saint Cecilia, and all the works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, so fascinating to me.