Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Article
William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonne
William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonne
Judith Bronkhurst
Paul Mellon Centre, 2006
800 pp., 242.99

Buy Now

Timothy Larsen


Look Again

William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite vision.

We have impatient eyes. In our video age, we expect that one picture will be replaced by another as fast as our brains can take them in. We flatter ourselves that we are the most sophisticated viewers ever, when all the while we demand images so crude, they can be exhausted in the blink of an eye.

We are impatient in a different way with sacred art—impatient with its very right to exist. Secular viewers would prefer to imagine that religious motivation inevitably produces bad art. Urbane Christians are so afraid of being caught endorsing propaganda that they shy away from the very art that expresses their own vision of the world—however good it might be.

Hence the Pre-Raphaelites continue to unsettle us, just as they did many of their contemporaries. Critics seem always to be looking for a way to set them aside without having to go so far as actually to claim that their art lacks merit. In Michaela Giebelhausen's Painting the Bible: Representation and Belief in Mid-Victorian Britain, however, the art of the Brotherhood receives a welcome, genuinely sympathetic treatment.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and the other Pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against the high art conventions of their day. They stood for paintings that were infused with meaning, often through symbolism, and executed with realism and meticulous attention to nature. Their self-chosen name was a deliberate provocation: what if medieval art was in some ways better than that of the Renaissance? (Charles Dickens was sufficiently scandalized to write a satire in which he projected the emergence of a Pre-Galileo Brotherhood which would deny that the earth revolves around the sun.) And yet, the glories of the Renaissance notwithstanding, the way its artists flouted realism was assailable. John Ruskin, a seminal intellectual inspiration for the Brotherhood, objected that the apostles in Raphael's Christ's Charge to Peter were "a faded concoction of fringes, muscular arms, and curly heads of Greek philosophers."

The Pre-Raphaelites admired leading medieval religious painters such as Fra Angelico and Giotto for their earnestness and sincerity: they patently believed the Christian truths that their art depicted. Ruskin observed that art used to be a way of communicating faith, but the great themes of faith were now cynically employed simply for the sake of displaying artistic prowess. He grumbled about the typical modern artist who thought of a picture of the Madonna merely as "a pleasant piece of furniture for the corner of a boudoir." The Pre-Raphaelites wagered their artistic reputations and lives on the premise that it need not be so. In our irony-soaked, "post"-everything age, we need them. Most of all, we need Holman Hunt.

Judith Bronkhurst's William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné; should be gratefully accepted as a gift to our age. A century from now, should the world endure, these volumes from Yale will be on display in some museum. A guide will speak reverently of them in hushed tones, conceding that having all of our images stored electronically is an advance in many ways, but lamenting that such physically beautiful objects as these are no longer being created. Her listeners will dream of owning these books the way that we dream of owning the original paintings they depict.

Mostly, these volumes are a gift to us because they can serve to re-train our impatient eyes, challenge our dismissiveness toward sacred art, and function as a catalogue of hope for those who have reached a cultural dead end. Unfortunately, neither Giebelhausen nor Bronkhurst is quite as sure-footed as Virgil when it comes to guiding us on this journey. Indeed, although Bronkhurst makes a few passing references to the evangelical influence on Hunt's life and work, she is so unfamiliar with this terrain as to speak dismissively of "a bias toward evangelicanism [sic]."

Giebelhausen explains the need for her book thus: "Despite the centrality of religion to Victorian culture, this is the first study to engage with the theory and practice of religious painting in nineteenth-century Britain." Lest anyone should make the embarrassing mistake of thinking that she personally believed any of the spiritual messages proclaimed in these works of art, Giebelhausen ends her acknowledgments with a disclaimer of sorts: "And finally, my biggest thanks go to my family and friends for taking my mind off Jesus." This personal stance noticeably influences her work. She takes it for granted that God, like Prince Albert, did not outlive Queen Victoria. She writes as if the modern discipline of biblical criticism generated the compelling insight that people don't rise from the dead. Nor is this personal distance redressed by a reasonably adequate factual grasp of the Christian tradition. Presumably projecting her own experience, Giebelhausen imagines that people learned to think of Christ fulfilling the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King by reading Thomas Carlyle.

The fundamental structural flaw in Giebelhausen's presentation, however, is her inability or unwillingness to observe the influence of evangelicalism. One suspects that she could not envision herself defending evangelical works of art as innovative and compelling. In Painting the Bible, Hunt's evangelical identity is literally confined to an endnote—and this was forced upon Giebelhausen by an unavoidably apt quotation from Hunt himself. Instead, the religious map is redrawn so that there are only two germane camps: "liberal Protestantism" (a full and final statement of Hunt's religious identity, in this telling) and "the extreme High Church" (identified as the source of Hunt's opponents).

As to the latter, the word "extreme" is apparently an attempt to deal with all the support that Hunt actually received from the high church. His main patron, Thomas Combe, after all, was a high churchman. Combe's widow donated the original The Light of the World to, of all places, Keble College, Oxford, an institution whose high churchmanship can hardly be described as moderate. Hunt even made a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of an Anglican priest that emphasized his Tractarian zeal (New College Cloisters, 1852).

Core themes of evangelical Protestantism—personal conversion and atonement through Christ's work on the cross—were the inspiration for almost all of Hunt's great religious works of art. The Light of the World is as evangelistic a painting as one can imagine: a straight appeal for the viewer to open the door of his or her heart and let Jesus come in. Likewise, The Awakening Conscience was a direct call to be converted from a life of sin. The Shadow of Death drove home the point that Christ's whole life should be viewed through the lens of his crucifixion. The Scapegoat is a piercing affirmation of penal substitution, a doctrine that liberal Protestants—then and now—endeavor to evade.

As to the evangelical emphasis on the Bible, not only was Hunt painting scenes taken from Scripture, but many of his pictures were also sermons. They even came complete with texts. Not content with having the biblical allusion embedded in the title or printed in the exhibition catalogue, Hunt pioneered a new practice of designing the frames for his major works, and he repeatedly had these inscribed with verses. (One of the delights of the second volume of the Yale catalogue is the inclusion of photographs of these ornate frames.)

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple has Malachi 3:1, "And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple," written out in the painting itself in both Hebrew and Latin, while the frame adds the New Testament reading (Luke 2:48-49) in English. The Awakening Conscience has, as its text, Proverbs 25:20. The Scapegoat has Isaiah 53:4 written out on the top of the frame, balanced by Leviticus 16:22 on the bottom. The third version of The Light of the World, designed for St Paul's Cathedral, has Revelation 3:20 in capital letters at its base: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."

The frame for the first version of The Shadow of Death reads: "He made himself of no reputation and took upon him the form of a servant * * * And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross" (Phil. 2:7-8). Queen Victoria was so struck by the expression on Jesus' face in this picture that she commissioned Hunt to make her a head-and-shoulders portrait of Christ based on The Shadow of Death. Hunt entitled this picture The Beloved, and had Psalm 40:7 inscribed on its frame. (It is still in the Royal Collection.)

So set aside any knowing reaction to The Light of the World which is initial and final all in the same cursory glance, and look at it again more slowly. All its deliberate fairy-tale, mystical qualities notwithstanding, it is in keeping with the Pre-Raphaelite commitment to nature. We can trust Hunt that the plants in the foreground are just right. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites' conception of realism could entail a fantastical literalism. Hunt had a real lantern made out of brass to his exact design for the model to hold. The light had to be real: so, when the moon was full, Hunt worked on this painting from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Indeed, our Savior's halo is less jarring for us than it might otherwise be because Hunt has made it resemble a full moon.

If this picture does not move us, it is just possible that the fault lies with us rather than it. Perhaps such a jaded reaction betrays that certain doors in our hearts have become overgrown with weeds. It was not so for the Victorians. The Light of the World could jolt and haunt them. Crowds comprised of every kind of person came to see the painting. Eventually, ministers led groups; schools organized outings. It was a sensation when it came to New York. Countless ordinary people bought a cheap, engraved copy to illuminate their homes. It was printed in numerous editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

There is no more poignant tribute to its potency than that the artist himself was spiritually transformed by it. Holman Hunt never paraded his conversion experience, but it was real, profound, and lifelong—and it was prompted by his work on The Light of the World. In addition to all the symbolism that he has left for us to explore in The Light of the World, Hunt literally buried a secret message in it. At the top of the picture, in a portion of the painting that he deliberately hid beneath the frame, Hunt wrote, "Me non praetermisso, Domine!"—a heartfelt plea for his Lord not to pass him by. These private words of devotion were only found when repairs were made on the frame in 1919, by which time Hunt himself had been dead for almost a decade. (They have been left exposed to view.)

Thomas Carlyle was not converted by The Light of the World. Disliking the way that Hunt had symbolized Christ's priestly and kingly offices, he protested: "Ne'er crown nor pontifical robe did the world e'er give to such as Him." Carlyle called upon Hunt to present a Jesus that was true to the actual life of the real man, one who was "toiling along in the hot sun," his "rough and patched clothes bedraggled and covered with dust." Almost twenty years later, Hunt answered this challenge with The Shadow of Death (first exhibited, 1873).

Once again, we are called upon to look more carefully. This painting is an even more thorough example of Hunt's attentiveness to nature. It was by then his standard practice to go the Holy Land to paint his biblical pictures. He went to great lengths to paint the light as it is, constructing two sheds on a Jerusalem rooftop that were rotated every hour to follow the sun.

This level of detail, when the Brotherhood had first adopted it, was itself an offense to the academic painters of the Royal Academy. One critic had said in regard to Millais's widely derided Christ in the House of His Parents, when it was exhibited in 1850, that the artist had wasted his talent "on the representation of wood-shaving." Given the cluttered floor of Christ's workshop in The Shadow of Death, Hunt clearly had not been cowed by this point of view. Moreover, he did not present Mary as the ethereal figure she traditionally was in religious art, but rather in strikingly specific Middle Eastern clothes and jewelry. For this painting, Christ's halo is cleverly gestured at by the way that his head is framed in an arched window.

Hunt proudly observed that the subject matter itself was innovative: "amongst the old masters there is not a single one representing Jesus Christ working as a carpenter." The working classes recognized that Hunt was giving them a Jesus who was one of their own—a Savior who had done honest, physical labor. They loved this picture. The real money was to be made in reproducing the image for the masses, and Hunt received for The Shadow of Death the highest price that any English artist had ever been paid for a picture and its copyright.

In The Shadow of Death, Jesus, after a hard day's work as a carpenter, has paused to lift up holy hands in prayer to his Father in heaven. In so doing, his body happens to take on a cruciform shape. This prefiguring is deepened by his shadow on the wall. There, a wooden tool-rack serves in our imaginations as the horizontal plank of the cross. Mary has been rummaging in the chest where the gifts from the Magi are kept but, for an evangelical, the incarnation and epiphany always point to the crucifixion. Her pondering heart is arrested by the shadow of death on the wall.

What are we to make of the efforts of the Brotherhood? Ruskin's reaction to the initially unfavorable reviews of The Light of the World is more forceful than ever: "We have been so long accustomed to see pictures painted without any purpose or intention whatsoever, that the unexpected existence of meaning in a work of art may very naturally at first appear to us as an unkind demand on the spectator's understanding."

The comments of a teenage Beatrix Potter when she viewed Hunt's The Triumph of the Innocents ought to serve as a retort to everyone who complains about Hunt's willingness to insert abstruse symbolism: "My father objects to it that he can't understand it, but I had rather a picture I can't understand than one with nothing to be understood."

Ford Madox Brown, himself an honorary Pre-Raphaelite, conceded that "stepping backwards is stumbling work." Despite all the faux bravery of our endlessly proliferating "post"- movements, it strikes me that it would take far greater courage in our day for a few hearty souls of real intellectual mettle to pursue some daring "pre"- experiment. The Pre-Raphaelites knew that it is harder to recover what was good in the past than to deride what was bad. What they were searching for—and what I believe they found—was not a nostalgic retreat but rather a faithful manifestation of what Paul Ricoeur alluringly spoke of as a "second naiveté." Evangelicals call it being born again.

Timothy Larsen is currently a Visiting Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge University. In July he begins as McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press).


Most ReadMost Shared