Hunt was drawn to art and to religion in order that he would not be overtaken by modern materialism which he felt produced ‘feeble painting’.[1] This attitude reflects a dread of meaninglessness indicative not just of his and Millais’ art but, I suggest, as part of the wider fear of the instability of modernity and urbanity. Landow says he was trying to popularize a realistic style of painting, and to prevent the replication of facts as being a scientific record.[2] Hunt picked emotional scenes to avoid becoming mechanical n his work, e.g. The Awakening Conscience.

Hunt wanted ‘to elevate materialism by mysticism & make the accessories of an inanimate realism instinct with spiritual symbolism’.[3] He referred to the language of the earlier masters ‘was then a living one, now it is dead’ and therefore to repeat either their iconography or compositions ‘for subjects of sacred or historic import is mere affectation’[4] The language of faith was largely diminished and undermined, and a new symbolism was needed. Landow applies this idea to Hunt’s Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection). Hunt appears to have been conscious about illuminating ‘vulgar’ people with scripture / spirituality / and morality etc. [5]

Hunt, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection)

In The Externals of Sacred Art, William Michael Rossetti contended that character of the age is ‘foreign to symbolism’.[6] Rossetti decries the ‘hastiness’ of the age, and says that art has ceased to have any ‘recognizable system’. Landow reads Rossetti’s writing as being one which opposed ‘symbolic and realistic painting, believing the two are intrinsically incapable of being combined’. This attitude of allegorical art standing in opposition to realism mirrors ‘those hostile to the Pre-Raphaelites’.[7] Stephens had a similar vein of thinking about allegorical art; ‘allegories, which are but abstract representations of feeling and principles, not of facts’.[8] A principal concern of aesthetics must also be to ensure longevity in times of change, for ‘any referentiality may soon become obsolete’.[9] To avoid this, Landow says an artist must rely upon aesthetic qualities alone. However, I think there is an alternative view which means artists can seek a return to know referentials, e.g. the angelic body which acts as a bridge between the secular (Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian etc.) and the religious (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity etc.).

Landow proceeds with a discussion about works by Unwin, and Coleman, and positions them firmly in the light of Martin and Danby; mainly, due to seeing Hunt as working through his own desire to establish a new symbolism / aesthetic. Hunt wrote to Tupper ‘In England you know spiritual figures are painted as if in vapour’.[10] Landow suggest works like Christ and the Two Mary’s, The Light of the World, and The Triumph of the Innocents are located within spiritual significance ‘to guide us in dark places’.[11] Hunt’s The Light of the World is then shown to have had international significance: spiritually, literarily, and artistically speaking.

Prior to this work, Hogarth was a major influence for Hunt, particularly in relation to works which had a satirical bent to them. Landow describes The Hireling Shepherd (1851, Manchester) as being Hunt’s first Hogarthian subject, before performing an astute analyses of this work, and The Awakening Conscience (1853, Tate). Landow suggests The Hireling Shepherd offers n ‘implicit stamen about the nature of the artist and his responsibility to fight the conventional, the blind, and the wicked’. Hunt The Moraliser.

The referentiality Landow briefly touched upon, is illuminated in Hunt’s decision to rename Our English Coasts (1851) (1852, Tate) to Strayed Sheep; a painting must have longevity, as, presumably, a title must as well. The discussion upon Ruskin’s anti-Catholic ‘warnings’ for this work, highlights the religious concerns for ‘the flock’, the Christian flock; ‘Christ’s Sheep are the most simple…always losing themselves; doing little else in this world but lose themselves’.[12] Importantly Ruskin described the work as Hunt’s first ‘sacred paintings’.[13]

A sustained and fascinating Hogarthian analyses of The Awakening Conscience unpacks arguments around redemption, social commentary, satire and the ability for these themes to co-exist within religious paintings. It is Landow’s enlightening discussion upon The Miracle of the Holy Fire (1896- 1899, Fogg) which proves most helpful in understanding religious attitudes and rituals of the day.

Hunt painted this image forty years after seeing the ritual, one which made an impact on Hunt not least for its ‘mad frenzy and unchristian violence’.[14] A candle, lit by an angelic visitation, was (and still is) at the centre of this important Christian ceremony. Once again, Landow considers Hunt’s image as a Hogarthian satire, one which he wrote about in 1858; and Landow intelligently states Hunt has ‘returned to the fray four decades later as a pamphleteer in paint’.[15] The pamphlet includes a description from an Oxford student, which describes ‘blows and wounds even at the very door of the sepulchre, mingling their own blood with their sacrifices’.[16] Another witness describes similar, but worse. Hunt was furious at Prime Minster Stanley’s desire for union of ‘our Church with the Greek perpetrators of miraculous fire’.[17] The painting is one of superstition, madness, religion, and satire, albeit Landow states Hunt’s capacity to be an entirely effective satirist is limited by his insistence upon realism.[18]

The Miracle of the Holy Fire (1896- 1899, Fogg)

[1] 10, August, 1870; Jerusalem; Autobiographical Notes, II, 95.

[2] Landow, page 19.

[3] Ibid., page 20. Original source Mr. Homan Hunt’s “Shadow of Death, Saturday Review, 36 (1873) 728

[4] Ibid., page 20. Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (New York, n.d.), pp. 68 – 70.

[5] Ibid., page 25.

[6] Ibid., page 26.

[7] Ibid., page 27.

[8] Stephens, The Idea of a Picture. The Crayon, 5 (1858), 334.

[9] Landow, page 28.

[10] Ibid., page 32 (no footnote provided to original source but possibly this 20th June, 1878, London (Huntingdon M.S.).

[11] 20th June, 1878, London (Huntingdon MS.)

[12] Ruskin, Works, XII, 534.

[13] Ruskin, Works, XXXIII, 274.

[14] Landow, page 54.

[15] Ibid., page 55.

[16] Hunt, The Miracle of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Sepulchre by W. Holman Hunt (London, 1905), p.1

[17] 15 July, 1877; London (Huntingdon, MS.)

[18] Landow, page 58.