Symbols ground the meaning of William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death, although pictorially, Hunt maintains a strong sense of realism. Throughout the picture, there is a noticeable attention to detail — in Jesus's body, in the trees outside, in the saw and sawhorse — which all give the impression of realistic representation. However, the placement of figures and objects is not at all natural, which leads a viewer to uncover what becomes rather obvious symbolism: Jesus's shadow covers a cross-shaped tool-bench; the archway is a halo over Jesus's head; even Jesus's shadow (by means of his right arm) looks like he has been locked in some circular tool on the wall. Overall, the shadow of Jesus in the position of crucifixion, while in the middle of carpentry work, suggests the inevitability of his death, as well as the method of his death.
1. Jesus is far more realistically portrayed here than in many pieces of art. He has developed biceps, triceps and chest. His beard could use a trim. He didn't walk to Bethlehem straight from Norway. How does this realistic portrayal of Jesus, the carpenter and Semite, relate to how potentially spiritually uplifting the painting can be?
2. Why is the fillet red? Is this an overt symbol? Or is the color associative — perhaps with blood? Or is it to bring the viewer's eye to the lower corner, where it might typically not go?
3. Is there an actual narrative to this picture, or does its symbolism exist outside the context of story?
4. The handle of the saw appears somewhat stylized. Could this be an anachronism? If so, would it at all tarnish the sense of realism in the picture?
Last modified 10 September 2006