Sir Edward Coley Burne - The Wine of Circe

by Sarah Baur

The landscape-format work lets the viewer look into an antiquated room. Centered in the foreground of the picture is a woman with brown hair. Barefoot and wrapped in an orange robe, she bends forward. With a concentrated gaze, she drips a few drops of a liquid from a small vial in her right hand into a tall amphora standing at the left edge of the picture. Two black panthers stand in front of her, watching their mistress with grimly greedy looks. In the right foreground of the picture is a high censer, whose legs are entwined by a serpentine decoration. Behind it is a silver throne flanked by winged animal creatures. A large table set with silverware and bright cloth, with colorful vessels and a small orange tree to the right, together with a few sunflowers scattered around the room, fill the rest of the picture's middle ground. In the background, a narrow elongated window opening gives a view outside to the open sea. There the viewer sees four ships with inflated sails approaching on the right side.

Depicted here, as the picture's title suggests, is Circe, in a scene from Homer's Odyssey. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and lives on the island of Aiaia, where Odysseus and his companions one day find themselves. Lured by Circe's song, the wandering sailors soon arrive at her palace, where they are hospitably welcomed with food and wine. But Circe is powerful in sorcery and has added "beguiling juices" to the wine, turning the visitors into pigs - all except Odysseus, who arrives at the palace later. With his sword and an herb provided by Hermes, he is able to protect himself against Circe's spell and change her mind. After a night of love together, Circe redeems the remaining companions and grants them her hospitality on the island for a whole year. (Homer: Odyssey. 10, 135-574; 12, 1-143)


The trial of strength of threat and attraction between the mortal protagonist and the divine sorceress led Circe herself to be quickly understood as a personification of lust and depravity to be resisted. Burne-Jones' ominous and unsettling pictorial interpretation of Circe depicts the moment when she prepares the potion to transform her approaching guests. Through the window, she will have already seen Odysseus' ships and thus pursued her preparations for the reception. Her gaze is now fixed in concentration on the preparation of the fatal elixir. The warm color scheme of the colorful painting is created by the generous use of muted orange-red to golden-yellow colors, which are particularly present in Circe's robe, which occupies much of the central area of the painting. They dominate over the darker blacks and anthracites in which the panther, censer and throne are painted. The coloring makes an aesthetic impression due to the selection of harmoniously matched colors. The application of paint and the brushwork appear even and uniform without creating unrest.


The central positioning and the color intensity of the robe clearly focus Circe as the main character. This is further aided by the precise rendering of her figure, which is clearly visible beneath the detailed drapery of the robe. How extensively Burne-Jones devoted himself to the design of the figure and the robe of Circe becomes especially clear in the numerous sketches that he repeatedly made for it. Burne-Jones' study of ancient Greek sculpture can be traced not only in the meticulous execution of the robe. The frieze-like arrangement of the sitter is also significant and based on his studies in the British Museum. The solid-looking architecture, of which only a small section is visible in the painting, is nevertheless a significant part of the composition, as it roughly parallels the horizontal form and posture of the protagonist's upper body, thus simultaneously underscoring her determination. The composition of the image is interspersed with a number of concise horizontals and, at first impression, appears somewhat squat. At the same time, Circe's stooped posture also evokes a sense of her supposed malevolence and thoughts of clichéd crotchety witches in hunched postures, such as those already found in some of Francisco de Goya's drawings.


Circe's concentration is also reflected in the sunflowers. They all turn their heads tensely towards this event rather than towards the sun. At the same time, this flower variety in particular can be interpreted as a reference to Circe's ancestry, the Greek sun god. The snake forms also have a symbolic character, for the serpent is often seen as the devilish temptress and a symbol of evil. Together with the grim panthers, Burne-Jones thus gives Circe a menacing aura.


Sir Edward Coley Burne - The Wine of Circe

Watercolor, 1863 - 1869, 70 x 101,5 cm, private collection


Francisco de Goya - The Magician and the Witches

Oil on canvas, 1797 - 1798, 44 x 32 cm, Fundación Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid