Evoking ‘the spirit of a beautiful, primitive and, in a large sense, eternal service’ on May Day.
The choristers of Magdalen College, Oxford, are singing a hymn to the rising sun on the first day of May. This ceremony of pagan origin was revived in the 1840s; it appealed to Hunt who liked to combine a contemporary event with a strong didactic and symbolic purpose, in this case spiritual illumination.
The figures are all portraits but not all those represented took part in the ceremony, and Hunt never intended to paint literally one actual performance of the sacred music but ‘to represent the spirit of a beautiful, primitive and, in a large sense, eternal service’. Hunt remained true to his Pre-Raphaelite ideals even in this late work. The frame, rich with sun symbolism, was designed by Hunt.