Hireling Shepherd William Holman Hunt relied on the infusion of spirituality in his paintings to give meaning to his images. He and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite, Millais, believed that utilizing pure realism without the presence of faith would only result in empty and literal art because the images would merely be dull representations of physical facts. Thus, Hunt realized that painting scenes that resonated with emotional meaning would be more effective in creating art that incorporated a highly realistic style of painting while not neglecting the importance of symbolism. This spiritual manner of approach led to the painting of The Triumph of the Innocents in which Hunt depicts the spirits of the slaughtered innocent children entering the afterlife, rewarded for their roles as the first martyrs of Christianity, alongside an image of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt.

In The Triumph of the Innocents, Hunt creates two disparate sources of light to differentiate the natural and supernatural forces of the painting — the family of Jesus en route to Egypt and the spirits of the young martyrs, respectively. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are enveloped in a soft light that most likely derives from the natural light of the stars whereas a bright light shines upon each of the martyred innocents, giving an impression of holiness. Hunt also uses brighter colors to depict the scant, yet luxurious, clothing of the child spirits while using muted colors to fuse the family with their dark natural surroundings. In addition, the globes of water seem further to separate the supernatural from the natural figures. However, Hunt shows that the natural and supernatural forces are meant to be aware of the other's presence by means of the gestures of Jesus and the gaze of Mary. The baby Jesus reaches backwards in the direction of the children with the desire to touch them while Mary observes the actions of the young spirit walking alone. On the other hand, the innocents appear to be flanking the fleeing family, leading Jesus to a safe destination. Therefore, Hunt ultimately attempts to unite the natural and supernatural.


1. It has been said that the biggest problem with The Triumph of Innocents may be that Hunt does not successfully combine the natural and supernatural images that are depicted despite his best intentions. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

2. The child martyr dressed in the white robe walking separately from the main group of innocents appears to garner the most attention from the characters. One of the slaughtered innocents as well as Mary gazes at the child looking down upon his chest. He also seems to be bathed in a sacred light that creates a soft halo around his hair. Why does Hunt have the viewers' eyes move towards this child as opposed to any other figure within the painting? What symbolism does this child carry, if any?

3. Joseph looks backwards at his wife and child on the donkey that he is leading. He alone seems to be unaware of the supernatural figures that surround his family. Do you think this was done on purpose? If so, why does Hunt make Joseph the only unaware character in the painting?

Last modified 19 September 2004