St Agnes was an early Christian martyr who suffered at Rome in 304 AD during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. Like so many saints of her type, she was self-consecrated to the ideal of virginal purity, shunning carnal relations with men on the grounds that she was the bride of Christ. In fact, she is said to have been only thirteen when she was executed for adopting Christianity and refusing to marry the son of the prefect of Rome. Even the option of becoming a vestal virgin she rejected since it meant ministering to pagan gods.
St Agnes's praises were sung by St Ambrose, St Jerome and other fathers of the early Church. A basilica, which still exists, was built over her tomb in Rome at the behest of the Emperor Constantine's daughter, and she became the patroness of all seeking a life of piety and sexual abstinence. Her name, meaning a lamb in Latin, reinforced this image, and a lamb is invariably her emblem. Burne-Jones's account of her is no exception, although he does not give her the long hair which she often has in allusion to the legend that, when her torturers stripped off her clothing, her hair miraculously grew long to protect her modesty.
As so often in Burne-Jones's work, the picture has its origin in a decorative project, in this case the east window in All Saints Church, Cambridge. Situated in Jesus Lane, opposite Jesus College for which the artist was to design some of his greatest windows in the following decade, All Saints was built by G.F. Bodley in the early 1860s, replacing a medieval church in St John's Street that had become too small for an expanding parish. Bodley had worked with William Morris and his firm before, so they were a natural choice to execute the east window. Designed and executed in 1866, this consisted of four tiers of five lights with tracery above (fig. 1). Burne-Jones provided most of the cartoons for the twenty standing figures in the principal lights, although Ford Madox Brown contributed three and Morris himself two. Burne-Jones charged four guineas each for most of the cartoons, the only exceptions being the figures of Adam and Eve in the top tier, which cost the parish another guinea apiece. This may have been because the employment of nude models was involved (see A.C. Sewter, The Stained Glass of William Morris and his Circle, Yale, 1974-5, vol. 2, pp. 41-2).
The window's lowest tier represents five female saints noted for their rejection of matrimony. St Agnes is second from the left; the others, from left to right, are saints Barbara, Radegunda, Dorothy and Catherine of Alexandria. The St Catherine is by Morris, and of the Burne-Jones designs for the other four, that of St Radegunda would be taken no further. Those for Saints Barbara, Agnes and Dorothy, however, were each to enjoy an afterlife in terms of easel pictures adapted from the cartoons made for the All Saints window.
By strange coincidence, all three of the pictures in question have either recently appeared or are currently appearing at Christie's. While the present work represents the St Agnes design, the easel version at the St Dorothy light was sold in these Rooms on 23 November 2005 (fig. 2) and an oil painting in which all three Saints line up together, executed in 1869, will be offered in our sale of Victorian and Traditionalist Pictures on 22 November 2006.
The St Dorothy was almost certainly developed on top of the stained-glass cartoon itself. At this early date Burne-Jones tended to draw his cartoons in sepia wash, and he would sometimes use them as monochrome underpaintings for pictures worked up in his characteristic gouache technique, with results that have much of the richness and density of oil. Whether this is also true of the present St Agnes is less easy to say. On balance it seems likely since the picture is the same width as St Dorothy (15½ in). But it is also somewhat taller (37 in. as against 31½ in.), as if the artist has incorporated an area of paper that lay outside the limits of the stained-glass design (there is no evidence that a strip has been added). The reason for this enlargement is clear. In the St Dorothy, he retains a decorative formula, placing the figure against a curtain which obliterates everything except a band of winter sky. In the St Agnes he aims for a more pictorial effect, opening up the composition to include a verdant landscape populated by sheep, companions to the lamb the Saint held in her arms.
St Agnes, St Dorothy and the related oil painting are all significant in the context of John Ruskin's attempt to shape Burne-Jones's development in the 1860s. Depicting virgin martyrs but representing them as images of sweetness and innocence and shunning the more gruesome aspects of their stories, they are deliberate expressions of the 'constant' values that Ruskin was so keen to promote at this time for aesthetic and social reasons. This complex subject has already been considered at some lengh in cataloguing St Dorothy, and is rehearsed in the catalogue of our forthcoming sale on 22 November, lot 230 in relation to Saints Barbara, Dorothy and Agnes. Anyone wishing for further details should consult the relevant catalogues or ask the department for copies.
The Renaissance-style frame is of a type which suggests that the picture was handled by Agnew's when they became Burne-Jones's dealers towards the end of his life. The picture may well have been bought from them by William Hesketh Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme, who certainly owned it and gave it to the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight. This was probably in 1922, when the Gallery was opened as a memorial to his wife.
Lever died in 1925, and three years later the picture was listed in R.R. Tatlock's catalogue of the paintings and drawings in the Lady Lever collection. It remained at Port Sunlight for another thirty years, but in 1958 it was one of the many works that were weeded out by the Gallery's trustees and sold at Christie's. It fetched a mere 42 guineas, Victorian pictures still being in the doldrums. Had the trustees waited another few years, taste would have changed and their pictures would have realised far higher prices. Indeed, they might not have been tempted to sell at all.
Tatlock describes the picture as a 'pastel', and this mistake is perpetuated in the Christie's sale catalogue, where the medium is given as 'coloured chalks'.