Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854, – 1856, Lady Lever Gallery)

Landow believes the overly complex symbolism and iconography in The Scapegoat (1854, – 1856, Lady Lever Gallery) is the very reason for its failure. The intricate colours, the frontally positioned goat, the ritualistic nature of the piece all seem to conspire against the intended access to divinity. Landow suggests the realism within The Scapegoat is the very thing which alienates the spirituality Hunt intended to convey (although Landow does say the goat’s expression is almost human, and therefore ‘ludicrously sentimental’).[1] Landow is so critical of this work, he writes ‘The painting not only is a formal and aesthetic failure, but it has iconographic problems as well’.[2] Not all contemporary criticism was awful though, Ruskin understood the work, Collins was evidently supportive and Rossetti seemed to recognise the painting’s failings as well as it’s positives when he described it as ‘a grand thing, but not for the public’.[3] The public’s reception of the work was also further complicated depending on which strain of Christianity one was working within, e.g. Evangelical Christians who would have understood the work were unlikely to have spent much time on art, whereas others who were interested in Art may have been more alienated.[4]

A discussion follows which sets out other examples of typology by artists such as Landseer (An Offering, 1861) or A. Roberts, The Holy Family (1860). Landow does this so that Hunt’s strategy would be recognised by other artist’s and the general attending audience. He then goes on to examine the earlier version of The Scapegoat (1854- 1855, Manchester) alongside works such as Millais’ Blind Girl (1856, BMAG). However, the conclusion is the iconography and the isolation of the goat dilutes and impedes the typology because it seems the ‘salvation’ is promised to the goat, and not to man.

Hunt, Melchizedek (1865, British Museum).

A more effective typological symbolism appears in Melchizedek (1865, British Museum). Landow suggests that the work may have been produced for St. Michael and All Angels, Cambridge, in the year the British Museum dates the work.[5] Melchizedek turned away from the many wars of his day and in doing so earned the name ‘King of Righteousness’. The Reverend James Brown, a Victorian interpreter, explained the King as ‘something superhuman, or at least preternatural, could be a type of Christ’.[6] As a ‘type’ Melchizedek is read by Landow as a parallel of Hunt’s The Shadow of Death, which emphasizes the role of Christ as labourer. Landow’s main concern with Melchizedek is in reading the design as a piece of typological symbolism; he does this via the serpent, the narrative, the appearance of water from rock etc. What Landow does not dwell on, are the angels within the design. Rather small in comparison to the later designs of Burne-Jones, one could almost be forgiven for overlooking them. The Morrisian design of the King’s robes are so detailed that the lighter top section of the design acts as a relief to the eye, and as such the eye is stopped short in examination of this part. Landow describes ‘the continuity from Judaic to Christian dispensations’ being generally smooth aside from the panel which depicts the Ark of the Covenant.[7] Landow concentrates on the role of the sacrificial symbol, commenting on the goat and the lamb, whilst completely overlooking the watchful eye of the angels sat aboard the Ark. The important appearance of the angelic body is emphasized when we consider that out of a total of seven angels, two are in this panel. Landow considers this work as being produced under the auspices of heraldic design, believing Hunt treated the work differently to his oil paintings. Whilst I agree the work is treated differently, it seems more reasonable to consider the setting. Whilst artists like Burne-Jones embrace the angelic, Hunt’s only real depiction of them occurs only when he is creating a design specifically for the ‘angelic’ church of St. Michael and All Angels. The schematic iconography referred to by Landow, is one he considers Hunt restricted to the frame of his oils.

William holman hunt-the shadow of death.jpg
Hunt, The Shadow of Death (1873, Manchester Art Gallery).

As evidence of a continuation of thought process and design, The Shadow of Death is considered to comment upon earlier works such as The Scapegoat, and The Finding. Hunt, once again, provided a pamphlet to accompany the work.[8] The pamphlet emphasises Hunt’s intention of capture humility, the burden of common toil, and Landow reiterates how the humanity of Christ is key to the image. Christ as ‘Man Christ’, something which had already occurred twenty years prior in Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852 – 6, Tate), and had been undertaken by other artists, e.g. Georges de la Tour and John Rogers Herbert.

The Shadow of Death is an absolute triumph. A triumph of colour, symbolism, emotion, and narrative. Only when you are stood before the work will you entirely feel how valuable it is. Each tiny detail is so immaculately portrayed, and so intensely observed that only a man with great technical vision could create it. There was a risk the work would have been cumbersome, weighted down by such intensity of symbols, but Hunt manages to avoid this. The public alienation of The Scapegoat is avoided here, as Hunt deftly recapitulates the symbolism is a more accessible manner. It is not for me to unravel and repeat the symbolism which Landow does so well, but I will draw attention to is Landow’s observation of Hunt debt to Carlyle (whose criticism seemed to ultimately prompt Hunt’s reconsideration of accessibility). Landow’s most interesting comment is this description of the work as a ‘bitter annunciation’.[9] It is worth quoting at length:

The Shadow of Death in consequence becomes a bitter annunciation to Mary of her son’s fate, and it is therefore not irrelevant to note that Hunt’s picture bears several important resemblances to earlier Annunciations: the relation between Mary and the “annunciating” shadow, which takes the place of the angelic messenger, the setting within a room whose window looks out upon a distant landscape, and the symbolic devices, particularly the pomegranates on the window ledge, all make this seem Hunt’s version of the older theme. Furthermore, he uses his iconography, like that of Northern Renaissance Annunciations, once again to generate a miraculous fusion of body and spirit, time and eternity.

Durer, The Man of Sorrows (1500, Met)

Northern Renaissance traditions certainly seem key, particularly when you compare the hands of Christ to Durer’s The Man of Sorrows (1500, Met). In total, Landow offers seven complex motivations / readings of this work, but he concludes the themes are unified because they ‘combine realism and symbolism, matter and spirit, type and antitype’.[10]

The Triumph of the Innocents (1883-4, Tate) can again be considered as a new version of old themes, combining vision and realism albeit in a manner which does not translate well to the 21st century. Landow mentions Ruskin’s impress that works of art can be consider as ‘real visions of real things’.[11] Landow suggests The Light of the World was a representation of an interior spiritual experience (I suggest not dissimilar to Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1864 – 1870, Tate)), whilst The Triumph of the Innocents ‘permits us to see the interpenetration of time and eternity in a new way – the world of spirit and vision appears within our own world’. [12] Resurrection is offered a new iconography, in the visionary form of angelic putti who fill the landscape. Light, life, and flight all seem to be significant here. These putti are muscular, de winged angels. Some of them even pose as priests. Scott tells us that Hunt had at first thought the ‘charmingly painted children were angels’.

Resurrection is offered a new iconography, I suggest it appears in the visionary form of angelic putti who fill the landscape. Light, life, and flight all seem to be significant here. These putti are muscular, de winged angels. Scott tells us that Hunt had at first thought the ‘charmingly painted children were angels’.[13] Hunt explained his consideration of whether to make the martyrs clearly defined angelic bodies was because he wanted to avoid having to “pronounce the figures to be either subjective or objective. I wish to avoid positively declaring them to be more than a vision to the Virgin conjured up by her maternal love for her own child, the Saviour, who is to be calling her attention to them”.[14]

William Holman Hunt ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’, 1883–4
Hunt, The Triumph of the Innocents (1883–4, Tate).

Landow sees the work as directly linked to The Finding, because of its ‘Eschewing the cluttered interior of that picture, he once again depicts Christ catching sight of the otherworldly, the eternal, and although as an infant he cannot completely comprehend the meaning of his vision, as he could in The Finding, he reveals that even during his infancy the Christ child had spiritual powers.’[15] I would take this one step further, particularly as the concern with the other worldly, the spiritual body is suggestive of an angelic or divine body. The source of supernatural light adds to this reading, as does Hunt’s words to Scott which describes ‘ideal personages’, a religious vision. Interestingly the way Hunt wished Mary to view the children was as if they were part of the natural light at first, before she gradually realises that she has stood witness to ‘the glory of their new birth’. ‘By “glory” Hunt intended Scott to understand both the light which surrounds them and their spiritual state, and hence he insists “the division of the two — the natural and supernatural illumination — cannot be avoided”.[16] For myself, the division of the natural and the supernatural is further commented upon by the inclusion of the bubbles. Landow refuses to accept the children as being angels, and in strictest terms he is correct. They are not the winged androgynous angelic bodies of early Florentine work for example, but they certainly draw upon angelic traditions. For Landow to cast aside this heritage is surprising when only a few sentence previous, he is keen to remind us that works by Durer or other Flemish Masters certainly had impressed upon Hunt an artistic heritage.

Hunt does indeed write that the streams which the children dance along are not clouds such as “angels may be portrayed upon’ but surely the bubbles could be considered in this vein? Landow suggests the stream confirms a spiritual stream, but it would make more sense to read it as the Holy Water of God’s light. The metaphor of eternity and divinity within water is a common symbol, however, the bubbles do complicate this for they are transient. Bubbles burst. I have yet to satisfactorily resolve this, and when Landow takes the matter up, he suggests the bubbles are a form of promise to the Patriarch’s which is why they contain images of visions or prophecies. It is interesting that the large bubble depicts Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis: 28:12 – 17); a passage which is intrinsically linked with angels, angels who descend to earth and facilitate the ascension to heaven. Landow once again correctly shows how the image is linked to the reflections which were so often toyed with by artists like Van Eyck and his famous mirror (which Jenny Graham has written about in Inventing Van Eyck). Landow also shows how the globes figure within the angelic series, The Angels of Creation or as the Fogg Art Museum refer to them The Days of Creation (1870 – 1876).[17] F.G. Stephens felt the painting was not successful, and criticised the inclusion of the globes which he felt resulted in a ’strange mixture of the real and the unreal’. Not all critics were critical though, and it seems this strange imaginative work had genuine spiritual currency to some viewers.

The penultimate piece discussed within this chapter is one seldom mentioned, May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888 – 1891, Lady Lever). Landow discusses Hunt’s realism as being one which moves throughout time boundaries, as he attempted to capture the vision of the month and feel of May. The work is once again, considered as being a ‘visionary event’, which is achieved through drawing upon old symbols, e.g. the Parsee, the Persian sun worshipper.

Hunt, May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888 – 1891, Lady Lever)

The final work is the much written about The Lady of Shalott (1886 – 1905, Wadsworth Athenaeum). Here, Landow, in one paragraph, mentions the figure, the pictorial, the relationship between the globe and mirror. The work is seen as evidence for Hunt’s departure from typological symbolism toward the end of his career, because the types no longer remain the key themes.

Hunt, The Lady of Shalott (1886 – 1905, Wadsworth Athenaeum)

[1] Landow, page 108.

[2] Landow, page 108.

[3] Letter of April 186, Letters, I, 300.

[4] Landow, page 108.

[5] Landow notes the date is unclear. When writing in his memoirs, Hunt mentions paintings but no stained glass designs for the church. The design differs significantly from the paintings as well.

[6] ‘Melchizedek’, Good Words (1881) 422-4 – see Landow page 114.

[7] Landow, page 115.

[8] The Times described the pamphlet as ‘brief, modest, and well written’. The Times (2nd December, 1873), ‘Mr. Holman Hunt’s “Shadow of Death”’ The Times (2nd December)

[9] Landow, page 121.

[10] Landow, page 123.

[11] Ruskin, Works V, 86.

[12] Landow, page 126.

[13] Scott, Autobiographical Notes, II, 228.

[14] (5 January 1880; II, 229).

[15] Landow, page 128.

[16] Landow, page 130. Hunt (II, 220).

[17] I wonder whether the inclusion or removal of the word Angels is significant here.