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“The Star of Bethlehem” by Edward Burne-Jones

"The Star of Bethlehem" by Edward Burne-Jones

“The Star of Bethlehem” by Edward Burne-Jones

“The Star of Bethlehem” by Edward Burne-Jones is a painting in watercolour depicting the “Adoration of the Magi” with an angel holding the star of Bethlehem. The “Adoration of the Magi” is the name traditionally given to the subject in the Nativity of Jesus in art in which the three Magi, represented as kings, having found Jesus by following a star, lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worship him. This painting was commissioned by the City of Birmingham for its new Museum and Art Gallery in 1887. It was the largest watercolour of the 19th century, completed in 1890.

In the earliest depictions of “Adoration of the Magi”, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps with their gifts held out before them. Later images adapt Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, influenced by the images of tribute-bearers from various ancient cultures. The crowns on the Magi were first depicted in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by that time lost any Oriental flavour. This depiction reflected the tastes of Victorian Era England with Pre-Raphaelite influences.

In this painting, the three Magi have taken their royal crowns off and are holding them, or as in the case of the first King, he has laid his crown on the ground. All three Kings are very elaboratively dressed. The first King, with the crown at his feet, is wearing a silk robe and the hem of his inner garment is decorated with Saint George and the Dragon. Does he represent a King from the British Isles? The second king is dressed as a soldier or knight with medallion decorations showing mythological images. Is this a Greek or Roman King? The third King represents Africa, and his clothing displays an image of a medieval ship and dancing angels around the hem of his robe. Is he an Ethiopian King?

Joseph is on the far left, and he is shown holding copped branches, and he has laid his axe down by his feet. At the feet of Mary are small white flowers commonly known as “Star of Bethlehem”. The baby Jesus is shown as vulnerable and very human. The “Star of Bethlehem” which the Magi followed, is not shown in the sky, it is in the centre of the composition held as a light by the floating angel.

This painting is related in the Bible by Matthew:

“They saw the child with Mary, his mother;
and they knelt and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another path”.

This painting allowed Burne-Jones to revisit his early depiction of this subject from a tapestry design he had created. The colour palette with its rich blue-greens and its large size allowed him to add significantly more exceptional rich detail not possible in the tapestry version, especially in the clothing.

Edward Burne-Jones

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898) was an English artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Burne-Jones and was closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in Britain.

Burne-Jones’s early paintings show the considerable inspiration of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but by the 1860s Burne-Jones was discovering his own artistic style. In 1877, he exhibited eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery, a new rival to the Royal Academy. This opportunity allowed him to be heralded as a star of the new Aesthetic Movement.

Burne-Jones also worked in a variety of crafts; including designing ceramic tiles, jewellery, tapestries, and mosaics.


The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848. The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite”. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible and with intense attention to detail. The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas.

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Art

The Star of Bethlehem

  • Title:              The Star of Bethlehem
  • Artist:            Edward Burne-Jones
  • Date:             1890
  • Medium:       Watercolour and gouache
  • Style:             Pre-Raphaelite
  • Genre:           Religious art
  • Dimensions:  Height: 101.1 cm (39.8 ″); Width: 152 cm (59.8 ″)
  • Museum:       Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Edward Burne-Jones

  • Name:            Edward Burne-Jones
  • Born:              1833, Birmingham, England
  • Died:              1898 (aged 64), London, England
  • Nationality:    English
  • Movement:    Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,
  • Notable works:

Explore Museums in the United Kingdom

London Museum

Edinburgh Museums

Glasgow Museums

Liverpool Museums

Manchester Museums

Bath Museums 

Birmingham Museums


  • Does the symbolism in this painting point to these Kings coming from the British Isles, Byzantium and Ethiopia?
  • “Art is not a study of positive reality; it is the seeking for ideal truth.” – John Ruskin

Quotes about the Pre-Raphaelite Movement


“Better by far, you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.”
– Christina Rossetti


“The past is not dead; it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
– William Morris


“The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself — the art is imperfect which is visible,-the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement.”
– John Ruskin


“With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.”
– William Morris


“When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me.”
– Christina Rossetti


“All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.”
– John Ruskin


“The greatest foe to art is luxury; art cannot live in its atmosphere.”
– William Morris


“Art is not a study of positive reality; it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
– John Ruskin


“The more materialistic science becomes,
the more angels shall I paint.
Their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul.”

– Edward Burne-Jones


Photo Credit: Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain]