The Rending of the Veil

The Rending of the Veil by William Bell Scott, 1811-90. 1867-68. Signed and signed and inscribed with title on a label on the stretcher. watercolour heightened with bodycolour, 24 x 30 inches, 61 x 76 cm.

Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1869, Summer exhibition, number 525; Royal Scottish Academy, 1870, number 100; Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Laing Gallery, October 1989-January 1990, Pre-Rephaelite Painters and Patrons in the Northeast, number 131.

Commentary by Hilary Morgan

The crucifixion is shown in the background of the image. Interestingly Be1l Scott does not follow the direction of the tear in the veil indicated in the biblical text, which reveals a supernatural agency. In the rest of the painting his antiquarian and archaeological interests are clear. The high priest's garments and the accessories of the Temple follow the descriptions in Leviticus. The religious meaning of the painting should be understood in terms of typological symbolism, which George P. Landow has analysed in the context of Holman Hunts's paintings. Typological symbolism does not involve personification or allegory, but rather real persons or events in the pre-Christian era which anticipate or foreshadow the coming of Christ. The sacrifice of a lamb on the altar of the temple prefigures the death of Christ according to Christian theology, but from the moment depicted in the present work, that very death renders such sacrifice unnecessary.

Bell Scott sent a pen and ink drawing of this subject to Leathart, the Newcastle Pre-Raphaelite patron, in the Autumn of 1861, but he did not complete this watercolour until the winter of 1867-8. Leathart bought it in 1870, the year after its exhibition in the Royal Academy. In a letter to Leathart, Bell Scott described this work as his 'best watercolour.' This opinion was shared by Swinburne. In a letter to Alice Boyd of March 1891, he wrote: 'I am very glad to hear that he made an etching from the "Rending of the Veil", and I look forward eagerly to the chance of receiving a copy. As my verses may show, I always thought it the most sublime and nobly imaginative of all his designs known to me.' The 'verses' which Swinburne refers to were published in the Athenaeum shortly after Scott's death on 22 November 1890: the relevant passage is:

   Elate with sense of a sterner time,
   His hand's flight climbed as a bird's might climb
   Calvary: dark in the darkling air
   That shrank for fear of a crowning crime

   Three crosses rose on the hillside bare
   Shewn scarce by grace of the lightning's glare
   That clove the veil of the temple through
   And smote the priest on the threshold there.


Highly Important Victorian Paintings and Drawings. Catalogue for sale of 18 April 1979. London: Sotheby's Belgravia, 1978. Catalogue number 54.

Landow, George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. New haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

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Last modified 4 December 2001