William Hunt's painting The Shadow of Death is one that leaves a very uneasy impression in the mind of this viewer, and not simply because of its ominous title. As a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion, the painting has a sombre tone, and the lighting contributes strongly to this mood — the shadow of Christ is cast darkly against the wall and his body is illuminated by the light of a day that is dying. His mother turns away from him towards the shadow in a distressed pose, focusing attention on the shadow and leaving Christ himself strangely isolated. The wood that Christ has been working on stands out strongly in the foreground in a prefiguration of the Cross, and the bright red of the fillet leads inevitably to thoughts of blood and more specifically to the crown of thorns. (It might also refer to another painting of Hunt's The Scapegoat, which shows a miserable goat that represents the persecuted Christ). There is very little room for optimism here; the eye is drawn back into the shadows of the arches and there is a sense of being closed in, perhaps even entombed.
The painting represents God made flesh; divinity taking on a mortal body so as to take on the sins of mankind for the purpose of mankind's redemption:
Scripturally, the subject is "The Shadow of Death," — the bearing of the first burden of the Curse of Adam. Morally, it is this also: the bestowing of Life in trust for future universal good, rather than for immediate personal joy. Surely there are enough of every class who have felt the burdensomness of toil, the relief at his cessation; and also enough of those who have battled against the temptation to seek this world's glory at the expense of their peace with the silent Father, and who may be encouraged to persevere. [Mr. Holman Hunt's Picture, "The Shadow of Death" (London: Thomas Agnew: ), p. 2.]
However, Jesus' posture here does not seem to be an accurate representation of a body casting off the toils of the day. In order to generate the crucified image on the wall, Christ's limbs are painted at a slightly forced, unnatural angle, which forestalls any sense of bodily relief and instead gives a sense of discomfort and deliberate placement, not freedom and relaxation. The expression on the face reinforces this, being neither relief nor pain but some hybrid of the two, with the eyes rolled back in the head in an almost deathlike manner.
As well as 'the bearing of the first burden of the Curse of Adam', this painting can also be related to another Old Testament figure — that of Moses. The frame of the painting carried the image of the brazen serpent:
The artist again assists the viewer with his exhibition pamphlet, which in this case cites the brazen serpent (a type that Hunt had earlier employed in his stained-glass design for Melchizedek and on the frame of the Liverpool version of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple). The presence of the brazen serpent suggests that the painting is also an image concerning faith when faith seems absurd because so opposed to the ways of normal human life and logic. You recall that God sent serpents to plague the Israelites after they had broken faith with Him and set up the golden calf. When Moses prayed, yet again, to God to save his people from themselves and despite themselves, he commanded Moses to have a brass image of a serpent placed on a T-shaped pole. If the people gazed on that, they would be saved from the plague of poisonous snakes. Christian interpreters had long taken this episode in the Bible to prefigure Christ on the Cross, meditating on which could save one from one's own falling away, from one's own idolatries. (Landow, 'Reading Pre-Raphaelite Painting')
In the same article, Landow speculates that this image could also recall Moses' victory over the Amelekites, in which Moses was commanded to hold his staff above his head for the duration of a battle — a battle that the Israelites won as a result. However, the idea of linking Christ as Saviour with Moses is one that carries with it slightly troubling implications. Moses was condemned by God never to enter the Promised Land, but to die before he reached it. This makes any link between Moses and Christ a troubling one, since Christ is supposed to be the bridge into the Promised Land — Paradise — by virtue of his sacrifice, a sacrifice so strongly prefigured in this painting.
Rossetti also uses an image linked to Moses in her poem, 'Good Friday'. She brilliantly transposes the idea of a hard-hearted, rock-like sinner, who cannot feel enough for the suffering Christ, into the image of the rock that Moses struck in the desert, which gushed forth water for the thirsty Israelites (this water also represents the Water of Life, which Jesus claimed to be). However, this transposition is problematic because it was precisely this act that resulted in Moses' punishment — he struck the rock in anger at the Israelites and God accused him of wishing to demonstrate his own power, rather than emphasising that of God in performing the miracle, thus Moses was condemned never to enter the Promised Land.
These undercurrents could be explained away by the rationale that the New Testament reworks the Old — that through Jesus' sacrifice God shows himself to be a forgiving God, and the Old Testament is transformed through the redeeming light of the Crucifixion. Rossetti in her poem certainly addresses Jesus as: 'Greater than Moses'. Nevertheless, both works focus more upon the terrible event than its redemptive power, and both seem imbued with a pessimism about humanity — Rossetti agonises at her inability properly to feel for a sacrifice of which she is unworthy, and Hunt's painting emphasizes the 'Curse of Adam' — the fleshly nature forced upon us by the Fall — which necessitates our salvation. Given this atmosphere it is difficult to ignore the darker side of the Old Testament imagery that underscores both poem and painting, and to focus more upon The Shadow of Death than the promise of redemption.
1. To what extent do both poem and painting present us with a narrative?
2. Does the use of typology assist or hinder this narration?
3. Both works repay concentrated attention, but is there one that seems more replete with meaning or more fruitful to investigate in depth?
4. Does either work seem more concerned with its own artistry than its religious message?
Landow, George, 'Reading Pre-Raphaelite Painting.' Victorian Web.
- Shadow of Death — Not a Statement of Fact
Last modified 26 September 2007