20 March 2014

Art for Lent (16): ‘The Shadow of Death’
(1873) by William Holman Hunt

‘The Shadow of Death’ (1870-1873) by William Holman Hunt

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about El Greco’s painting of ‘Saint Joseph and the Christ Child.’ I want to continue that theme of Saint Joseph and his relationship with Christ this morning [20 March 2014], and so for my work of Art for Lent this morning I have chosen ‘The Shadow of Death’ (1870-1873) by William Holman Hunt.

‘The Shadow of Death’ is painted in oil on canvas, measures 214.2 cm × 168.2 cm, and is in the Manchester City Art Gallery.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1848. He was born in Cheapside, London, on 2 April 1827, and died in Kensington on 7 September 1910. He concentrated on history and religious painting, and his best-known works include ‘The Light of the World,’ ‘The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple,’ ‘The Shadow of Death,’ and ‘The Scapegoat.’

Holman Hunt worked on ‘The Shadow of Death’ from 1870 to 1873, during his second visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He painted ‘The Shadow of Death’ as he sat on the roof of his house in Jerusalem, and the work was completed it in 1873.

In this painting, Holman Hunt combines Sacred History with ethnographic and archaeological realism.

The artist shows Christ as a young man prior to his ministry, working as a carpenter in Saint Joseph’s workshop in Nazareth. The youthful Christ is stretching his arms after sawing wood. The shadow of his outstretched arms falls on a wooden spar on which carpentry tools hang, creating a shadow of death that prefigures the crucifixion. His mother, the Virgin Mary, looks up at the cross-shaped shadow, having been searching in a box where she keeps the gifts from the Magi.

Hunt’s depiction of Christ as a muscular hard-working craftsman was also probably influenced by Thomas Carlyle, who emphasised the spiritual value of honest labour and who earlier criticised Holman Hunt’s earlier depiction of Christ in ‘The Light of the World’ as “papistical” because it showed Christ in regal clothing.

The portrayal of the Virgin Mary, who has carefully saved the Magi’s gifts, depicts the working class values of thrift, financial responsibility and honesty.

The first painting went on display in 1874, the year after its completion. It went on show in Dublin and Belfast in 1875. It was a popular success, especially among the working class, and was widely reproduced as an engraving. The profits from the prints paid for its donation to the city of Manchester in 1883, and it is now held by Manchester City Art Gallery.

Hunt also painted a smaller version in 1873. It was sold for £1.8 million in 1994, which at the time was the highest price paid for a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Tomorrow:Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1850) by John Everett Millais.