William Holman Hunt's painting Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions centers around a moment of inspiration. Despite his painting's realism and basis in historical fact, Hunt avoids his dreaded mere duplication of reality and, instead, emphasizes the emotional importance of the moment.

In the foreground of the painting, Rienzi's fallen brother, the source of his motivation to seek justice, lies in Rienzi's arms with his sword neglected on the ground. Concerned and saddened soldiers surround the young man's body, which gives off an aura of purity in its lightness compared to the shading of the other men. The true focal point of the picture is not the martyred brother, however, but rather Rienzi's raised fist. His fist not only represents his awakened determination but also draws the viewer's eyes upward, connoting the higher purpose of Rienzi's planned actions. This vertical movement echoes throughout the painting: in soldiers' stark, raised spears, in the trees and plant that jut toward the sky, and in the cryptic figure and castle in the distance on the left and right of the painting, respectively. Thus Hunt's depiction of this historical scene pushes the viewer, as he would have hoped, to acknowledge the spiritual moment behind the realism.

Questions

1. Examine the figure that appears to be, perhaps, a woman holding a child in the background of the painting. Knowing Hunt's interest in iconography and typological symbolism, can this figure be viewed as a type of Madonna image? What effect does reading this symbol as either religious or secular have upon the painting's meaning?

2. In a similar vein, can the figure of Rienzi (a fourteenth-century leader who hoped to restore Rome to its former greatness) be viewed as a sort of savior or Christ figure? How does this reading affect the painting's overall meaning?

3. Is this painting effective in terms of Hunt's aims? Do aspects of it make it more than just a straightforward, realist rendering? Which ones?


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Last modified 19 September 2004