William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death painted between 1869 and 1873, presents a dramatic circle of light that frames Jesus standing with his hands in the air in a position foreshadowing his crucifixion. Indeed, the foreshadow is both literal and allegorical, as his body casts a shadow on the wall of his small carpentry workspace, which arguably competes with Jesus himself for the main subject of the picture. The tools on the wall behind, saw bench to the right, and wood shavings on the floor show Hunt's emphasis on the surroundings, with realistic precision, of a carpenter who worked most of his life. Jesus' head is tilted, his chest thrust forward and one knee is bent, indicating the great strain that the crucifixion would have imposed on his arms. His face is trance-like, staring up to heaven with a slightly open mouth that shows weariness of great struggle and that seems to have given up on this world. His head is framed by the arch in the back wall and the star of Bethlehem is carved into the column between the arches that show a gentle sky and rolling hills. A red headband rests on the end of the saw bench, evoking images of blood, the thorn crown the King of the Jews was forced to wear, and also the sweat it probably kept from dripping down his face while he was working as a carpenter. The woman in blue and white plaid to his left seems to be rummaging through a chest of clothes, but upon second look she is practically prostrated on the ground with her head looking towards the shadow on the wall, her left elbow in an action pose by her hip — she appears ready to move suddenly, perhaps towards her dead son fallen from the cross.
1. Why would Hunt choose to paint Jesus without a shirt (aside from hinting at the clothing he would have worn on the cross)?
2. There are two pomegranates on the shelf of the double arched window (I read about them but can't see them in the picture online) what do they symbolize and what other tiny details are obvious typological symbolism?
3. What connotations of suffering does Hunt portray? Is it merely the idea of Christ's crucifixion? Are we meant to see his shadow as the holding place for our death — or new life? Consider this question in relation to Mel Gibson's new hit The Passion of the Christ (2004). For those who haven't seen it, Gibson is obsessed with two main themes: (1) the limit of human tolerance for violence and (2) the idea of pure evil. These themes are driven to extremes in his movie, as Jesus is beaten to such an extent that he would have died long before the torture was over, and the worm-ridden devil stares throughout his suffering, taunting the idea of an easy way out to Jesus as he dies. Do we see violence, fear, or evil in Hunt's painting?
Last modified 21 September 2004