William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death, an artistic manifestation of his second trip to the biblical holy lands, was one of his most audacious and successful religious works to date, since it adheres specifically to the artistic style of the Pre-Raphaelites and, according to many, the notion of typological symbolism.
In this work, Christ is depicted as a man, mortal and laborious, who is practicing the arduous craft of carpentry within a workshop that retains the true and precise character of the traditional shops Hunt visited while in Bethlehem. This historical precision, in addition to the precision that Hunt used on-site to capture the effects of natural late-afternoon sunlight (not to mention the characteristic use of windows to create space and depth), indicate the attempt to capture the visual truth within an artistic setting (hard-edge realism). Christ, as he stands up and stretches his arms in an attempt to rid himself of the physical toil and tension wrought by manual labor, casts a shadow on the wall that foreshadows the coming Passion and Crucifixion — his face contorted in a surreal flash of death and pain. The placement of the tools and various objects around the shop suggest the imminent mortal ending through their representation of the physical toils of man — the saw suggesting the dagger to pierce his side, the crown-shaped object in the box and the red headband on the ground suggesting the crown of thorns to pierce his head, the beams of wood suggesting the cross to bear his body, the devices on the back wall reminiscent of the various tortures, trials and humiliations to come. Hunt, however, did allude to a slightly different interpretation of the position of Christ himself. In the pamphlet released with the painting, Hunt states that
The setting sun tells Him the hour for cessation from toil has arrived, that his day's labour is over. He has just risen from the plank on which He has been working, and is portrayed as throwing up His arms to realise that pleasant sensation of repose and relaxation . . . and in perfect harmony with this physical act, so natural and grateful to every one, the Divine Labourer pours forth His soul in fervent gratitude to His Father that the welcome hour of rest has come. [Quoted Landow]
This suggests, rather than the physical pain and torture of the coming crucifixion, the symbolic cessation of sins and the coming resurrection (which is also symbolized through the star above the window panes, and the section of the window that seems to form a halo above his head). Thus, one can deduce that this work is a masterpiece study in typological symbolism, Pre-Raphaelite realism, and religious interpretation.
1. Thus, Hunt seems to introduce the viewer to two differing yet interwoven ideas: the first being the mortal humility of Christ represented through the occupation, setting and implications of physical torture; and the second the idea of the immortal Savior, represented through the resurrection and the implication of the cessation of sins. While both ideas remain well articulated, the latter would seem to be more accepted by contemporaries. Nevertheless, this piece was well-received and toured Oxford and the North of England. Why do you think this is so? Comments on the symbolism?
2. While many can declare that this painting is an archetypical example of well-conducted typological symbolism. However, one can also infer that the body and stance of Christ seems unnaturally awkward, as if the position of the crucifixion is forced to produce meaning, and does not correlate with the setting. Does this violate the idea of typological symbolism? Would this be overtly obvious to a contemporary? Is that the point?
3. What explains the symbolism within the figure of Christ's mother in the painting? The contents of the box and the cloth draped around it? The meaning behind the fact that she is looking away from the viewer, and is noticing the shadow rather than the body of Christ?
4. What would members of the Academy criticize or praise regarding the composition of the piece? Is this considered an "academic" painting, both in terms of subject matter and aesthetics?
Landow,George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1979.
Last modified 21 September 2004