William Holman Hunt. [Eve of Saint Agnes] The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry. Oil on canvas. 1848. 75 x 113 cm. Collection: Guildhall Gallery, London. Reproduced courtesy of the City of London Corporation. Click on image to enlarge it.
- Drunken revel in the background
- Drunken guard in the foreground
- Madeleine and Porphyro
- Emblematic keys, horn, and wine jar
Commentary by Paul O'Leary McCann
William Holman Hunt's Eve of Saint Agnes uses Keats's poem only as a backdrop for an unambiguous message of temperance. While the eye might first go to the lovers in the upper-right, it cannot stay long before following their gazes to the collapsed doorman, contentedly passed out, parodied by the hounds, and leaving his post quite vacant. The revelers in the background are presided over by a Zeus-like figure, their arms, holding containers of drink, uplifted in the manner of worship even as they are surrounded by warm, red light. The sliver of outside visible through the cracked door is the blue of a rainy night, balancing the pure product of heaven against the stuff splashed on the floor by the door.
While not religious in subject, Eve of Saint Agnes is nonetheless not merely admonitory but strongly moralistic: the casting of the passed-out men with the dogs is the first and smallest step; the similarity of the revelers to a pagan congregation is another; Porphyro's hand on his sword emphasizes not the folly but the danger of the situation; the branch coming in from the top left suggests disprepair and rot; and, though the details are ambiguous, the keys in the liquor are perhaps the most damningly relgious symbol of all. A mated pair, their teeth form a cross; formed after the model used in numberless Catholic paintings, they are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, which are quite useless when covered in drink.
What does the mural in the back of the party depict? Saint George and the Dragon, perhaps?
What is interesting about the seat of the passed-out gentleman?
What details of clothing or architecture are interesting in this scene?
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Tate, 1984.
Last modified 7 February 2005