Stephen Farthing R.A. presents eight practical drawing classes using John Ruskin’s teaching collections to explain the basic principles of drawing.
© University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum
The drawing depicts part of a bronze relief. Because the drawing is an enlarged copy of a photograph, much of the detail is missing from the figures. In the top right corner, the infant Christ sleeps in the manger; below him, the Virgin lies asleep beneath a blanket whilst Joseph sits beside her, to the right. Above him hovers an angel, next to a star; the angel is announcing Christ's birth to two shepherds who stand in the right of the picture, their long hair blown out in strands behind their heads like tall crowns. Two sheep or dogs stand at their feet.
The scene is taken from the top two-thirds of the centre top panel of the left-hand door of the main portal of San Zeno Maggiore, Verona; Burgess has omitted the scene of the Adoration of the Magi which partially overlaps the section he has drawn (the Virgin's head should be visible between the shepherds' two animals, and one king's head actually obscures one of Joseph's feet). This panel is one of a group dating from the early twelfth century by an unidentified craftsman with strong German connections.
Ruskin states, in "Aratra Pentelici", that the drawing was made from the photograph of the portal and doors at San Zeno which he reproduced there as plate I (§ 22 n. = XX.216 n.). This is Reference Series no. 69; but the shadows in the photograph in fact fall rather differently from those in Burgess's drawing, and so its role as his source must remain questionable.
Although Ruskin took Burgess to Verona in 1869, the fact that this drawing was made from a photograph means that it need not have been made in Verona, so its date becomes less certain. Ruskin showed the drawing in his first lecture on the elementary principles of sculpture, devoted to 'the Division of Arts', on 24 November 1870, and so it must have been finished by then.
However, the drawing was first recorded in the Teaching Collection only in 1872, as no. 70 in the Reference Series. As noted above, it was placed immediately after a photograph of the portal of San Zeno, and was followed by another Burgess study of one of the other panels, which depicted the Creation of Eve and the Temptation.
Ruskin's discussion of the drawing in his 1870 lecture focussed on the difficulty of making out what was depicted in the photograph from which it was taken: the drawing indicated the difficulty of making out the subjects of the relief even at its original scale (although Ruskin was perhaps being disingenuous here - there is much more detail visible in the original relief). He managed to misidentify the shepherds as the magi - presumably misled by their crown-like hair - and the angel's wings as a cloud. He went on to point out that the reliefs showed how 'The pleasantness of the surface decoration is independent of structure' - in other words, how the decoration of a section of architecture need not be related to its architectural function. (Aratra Pentelici, §§ 22-23 = XX.215-216.)
Presented by John Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing School (University of Oxford), 1875; transferred from the Ruskin Drawing School to the Ashmolean Museum, c.1949.
Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Reference Series Including Temporarily the First Section of the Standard Series (London: Smith, Elder, ), cat. Reference no. 70
Ruskin, John, ‘Aratra Pentelici: Six Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, Given Before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1870’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Widderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 20, pl. III, f.p. 216
Ruskin, John, ‘The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes and Instructions’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 21, cat. Reference no. 70