I would like to consider how to read a Pre-Raphaelite painting by looking yet again at Ruskin's reading of the Tintoretto Scuola di San Rocco Annunciation. This passage in the second volume of Modern Painters bears importantly upon our enterprise in several ways. First of all, it provides an example of how a particularly skillful interpreter of art went about interpreting a particular picture, or, to be more precise, how he said he went about interpreting that picture. Furthermore, as I have argued elswehere, Ruskin's typological reading of this Annunciation, which he included in the second volume of Modern Painters as an instance of what he termed the Penetrative Imagination, is a crux of early Pre-Raphaelitism on several counts.

Jacopo Tintoretto. The Annunciation. c. 1582-57. Oil on canvas, 116 x 214 l/2 in. Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.

Ruskin begins his reading with the spectator's experience of the painting's realism. although the Pre-Raphaelites often wrote as if thus taking the realistic or material senses of a painting were some automatic given, in fact reading the painting as a scene composed of real objects necesarily involves acts of interpretation. Like most of those who accept realism--or in painterly terms, naturalism--as a style, Ruskin here treats it as a given and therefore he implicitly treats the style as transparent. Ruskin himself makes quite clear in an earlier volume that such naturalistic treatment entails languages of proportionate relationships, or what Gombrich has taught us to call schemata, but here he simply treats the surface reality as there, as given, and thus, despite the theoretical sophistication Ruskin displays in both his earlier volume and those that succeed this one, he treats the painting as if it were an existing scene (See Landow, "J. D. Harding" and Gombrich). Looking at the Scuola di San Rocco Annunciation, Ruskin begins his guided tour through it by pointing out that one first notices the Virgin sitting "houseless, under the shelter of a palace vestibule ruined and abandoned," surrounded by desolation (Works, 4.264). The next step Ruskin takes in leading us through this painting makes clear that he conducts such an act of interpretation as a form of narrative, for he emphasizes not simply what one sees but how one goes about seeing it. He tells us, therefore, that the spectator "turns away at first, revolted, from the central object of the picture forced painfully and coarsely foward, a mass of shattered brickwork, with the plastered mildewed away from it" (4.264). This method of presentation, we realize, places equal weight upon the perceiver and the perceived object, the ideal spectator and what that spectator sees. Then, after describing the painting's genre details and a spectator's first reaction to them, Ruskin next points out that these visual facts might strike a spectator as merely a record of the kind of scene the artist "could but too easily obtain among the ruins of his own Venice, chosen to give a coarse explanation of the calling and the condition of the husband of Mary" (4.264). Ruskin begins his presentation of this painting by dramatizing the paths the spectator's eye takes as it comprehends first major and then minor visual details. But because he believes that visible form inextricably relates to meaning, he then immediately presents us with an imagined spectator's first conclusions about the meaning of these details: they appear, it seems, to reflect both the painter's contemporary surroundings in a ruined Venice and his modern fascination with the picturesque, that aesthetic mode which delights in ruin.

At this point, Ruskin takes us deeper into the picture's meaning, and he does so by first intensifying our visual experience of it. According to him, if the spectator examines the "composition of the picture, he will find the whole symmtery of it depending on a narrow line of light, the edge of a carpenter's square, which connects these unused tools with the object at the top of the brickwork, a white stone, four square, the corner-stone of the old edifice, the base of its supporting column" (4.265). Citing Psalm 118, Ruskin explains that these details reveal that the entire painting — and all its coarsely realistic details — bear a typological meaning, for, according to standard readings of this psalm, it prefigures Christ. In Tintoretto's Annunciation, therefore, the "ruined house is the Jewish dispensation: that obscurely arising in the dawning of the sky is the Christian; but the corner-stone of the old building remains, though the builder's tools lie idle beside it, and the stone which the builders refused is become become the Headstone of the Corner" (4.265).

Ruskin's guide through Tintoretto's Annunciation provides his reader with a particular kind of lesson in perception. Using his gifts for word-painting, iconographical interpretation, and compsitional analysis, Ruskin does not simply tell us what the painting in question means. Instead, he provides us with a fable or parable of ideal perception that dramatizes the experience of a spectator who gradually perceives the meaning of a painting and thus fully experiences the work of art. Ruskin understood his role as art critic as necessarily involving an imaginative demonstration of the experience of meaning. Just as the first volume of Modern Painters teaches his readers how to perceive the worlds of nature and art, his later ones teach them how to interpret those worlds as well, and in both projects, which Ruskin clearly saw completely intertwined, he concentrates on providing the reader with models of experience.

In addition to the obvious fact that this key passage provides an e xample of what Ruskin at that point in his career took to be the highest, most imaginative art, this passage from the second volume of Modern Painters also provided a major stimulus to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: according to Hunt (Millais agreed with his account), reading this reading of a painting inspired him in at least two ways (See Landow, William Holman Hunt, 2-7, and "'Your Good Influence on Me.'"). First, this experience convinced him that the artist could be a prophet and, second, it inspired the PRB program of symbolic realism, a program based on the typological symbolism that informs many of the early works of Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, Collins, and others. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in other words, has its genesis, its point of origin (or one of its points of origin) in a reading of another painting, and as one might expect, that relationship influenced the way the Pre-Raphaelites expected the spectator to receive their works.

Ruskin's reading of the Tintoretto Annunciation thus has the additional significance of providing an ideal representation how we should experience art created in the Pre-Raphaelite mode. This pasage from the second volume of Modern Painters served this purpose because it took the form of a characteristically Ruskinian fable or parable of experience in which the sage tested on his own nerves and pulse the experience of encountering a particular work of art. This procedure served the dual rhetorical purpose of convincing the reader of Ruskin's interpretation of a work by dramatizing his experience of it and hence making it more creditable and also teaching the reader to experience other works of art in the manner than Ruskin has demonstrated. This passage, I would argue, not only inspired Hunt and his associates to create a mid-nineteenth-century symbolical realism but also created their conceptions of how their works should be experienced.

Ruskin's exemplary reading of the Tintoretto Annunciation does not follow a logical or rhetorical organization but instead assumes the form of a narrative, and Ruskin's explanation of the painting therefore takes the form of story telling. Furthermore, it does not take the form of just any kind of narrative. Rather, it appears in the form of a conversion experience, illumination, or moment of recognition so central to Victorian autobiography (See "Pattern of Conversion" in Buckley). Such narratives of recognition make particular sense since as Ruskin presents his readings of paintings, they follow the pattern of autobiography. The interpretative narrative that one encounters in Ruskin's reading of the Tintoretto Annunciation, like that in so many of his other encounters with pictures, tells the unfolding story of growing awareness that builds towards a climactic moment of recognition and change.

Now, in an important sense this interpretive narrative must be fiction. The term fiction, we recall, resembles the word poetry in deriving from the word that means not only "made up" but also "made" or "shaped," and such shaping experience by means of narrative always requires selection, omission, smoothing out, and ordering. Autobiographers can never provide their true beginnings, their true point of origins, from first-hand knowledge, and so their tales always have something inevitably arbitrary and second-hand to begin with (see Said, 44). Moreover, because the autobiographer always finds some interpretive shape in events whose relevance keeps changing as life changes, any reading and any narrative organization (or ordering) which supports that reading also inevitably has a fictional element. Indeed, limiting the particular relations that one will follow in a life or a painting must distort or limit the resultant interpretation, because they exist within a complex field of relationships. Both interpreting phenomena, whether of life or art, and placing them within a narrative smooths over all those loose ends, those facts that stick out so unsmoothly. Interpretation and narration, in other words, fictionalize, inevitably so.

Having examined Ruskin's exemplary reading and reminded ourselves of its historical importance to the PRB, let us next see how one could construct a similar reading for a particular Pre-Raphaelite work, The Shadow of Death, a work I have chosen in part because I have discussed it at length elsewhere and will not have to cite all the documentation that supports this reading. [See Landow, "William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death'" and William Holman Hunt, 116-25.] Following the Ruskinian method, one first begins with a rough impression, a first sight of subject: looking at Hunt's painting, one first sees the picture and receives some general impression of its subject, after which, checking the title and any information provided by a catalogue or chat label, one next looks more carefully at the painting.

According to Marc Rolnik, who has written the finest study of Hunt's stylistic development, the spectator gains entrance into The Shadow of Death at two main points, both of which the artist also uses to create a three-dimension space in the lower portion of the painting:

This entrance, established by a sharply focused item or a figure cropped by the frame, remains within the introductory foreground. However, whereas the paintings of Hunt's first phase have but one entrance, those of the second phase have several. For example, Hunt presents two major entrances to The Shadow of Death, each of which leads directly to its respective focal area or emotional climax. The lower-left entrance of the painting, the quilted drapery rendered in the artist's virtuousic hyperrealist style, marks the path that moves upward through the Virgin's left arm and shoulders to the prefigurative shadow of the Crucifixion. The red fillet in the lower right establishes the entrance of the path that leads, more immediately, toward the face of Christ. although the artist does not render the fillet in sharp focus, its role as a primary entrance into the right half of The Shadow of Death is clearly expressed by its foreground position and color, which Hunt does not concentrate elsewhere in the painting. (Rolnik, 41)

Marc Rolnik, who makes these observations while arguing against the received opinion that Hunt's style remained essentially static, claims that Isabella and the Pot of Basil marks the culmination of the painters's first stylistic phase, one characterized by attempts to create the rational spaces of early Renaissance painting. The Shadow of Death tentatively introduces the next phase, in which two- and three-dimensional elements — surface and depth, decoration and space — contrast with each other. According to Rolnik, the chief stylistic issue of Hunt's second phase is therefore to find ways of unifying his paintings by means of "a dynamic dialogue of two-dimensional and three-dimensional components." This second phase, which involves a struggle to maintain "an understood Renaissance space" while simultaneously asserting a two-dimensional surface, has much in common with works of second-generation Pre-Raphaelitism, particularly those of Burne-Jones and late Rossetti. Their perhaps unexpected influence and the artistist's study of ancient Greek and Renaissance masters in 1865 and 1866 contribute to this stylistic development.

Hunt's later works, Rolnik argues, oppose "foreground depth and background flatness" by dividing the canvas into upper and lower zones, each of which further divides into subsections, bisecting "the lower one while he trisects the upper." This handling of space and composition first appears tentatively inThe Shadow of Death in which the driving force, like that in Isabella, still remains the creation of a rational space.

According to Rolnik, under the influence of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt unifies the pictorial surface by manipulating "three formal elements — the rendering of surface, texture, and geometric repetition" (43). Some of these means of unifying his surface appear in The Shadow of Death, which thus marks the lessening of Hunt's own commitment to Pre-Raphaelite illusionistic naturalism. By the time he comes to paint his late works he describes only two surfaces, "flesh and nonflesh, the spiritual and the decorative" (43). We can observe some of the signs of this change in this depiction of Christ as carpenter. Thus, the drapery that appears on the lower left of the painting exemplifies the old drive toward illusionistic representation, whereas the second, nonillusionist drive to unify pictorial surface appears in the arch setting, which is now summarized, unlike earlier works, and in the wood chips in full light, which Hunt paints as if they are carved from soap rather than wood; the artist similarly draws no distinction between face of wooden vice and the surface of stone wall of the carpenter's shop in which the action takes place.

Such an attempt to chart both the way the artist's style functions in this work and the particular effect it has upon the spectator represent simple extensions of Ruskinian method. Instead of looking at the way the carpenter's square in the Tintoretto Annunciation carries the eye of the spectator, we have looked with Rolnik's guidance at the way a piece of drapery and the red fillet lead our eyes to significant parts of The Shadow of Death. Using our perceptions of other aspects of Hunt's style in this painting to place it within some scheme of the artist's stylistic development, however, leads us to another, perhaps more abstract form of narrative. Whereas looking at the way the drapery and fillet lead our eyes to certain details of the painting contributes to a Ruskinian narrative of perception, looking at the way these pictorial devices relate to those in Hunt's previous and succeeding pictures contributes instead to an historical narrative, one that comes into being only in the mind of the person — Ruskin, Rolnik, or whoever — who creates a sequence from the individual works that together constitute the artist's oeuvre. Both, of course, are narratives, but that of stylistic development exists only because the scholar has narrated it for us whereas we can experience the other for ourselves.

What about Ruskin's next stage of interpretive narrative, that which places the work within iconographical and iconological tradition and draws upon them? Hunt devoted so much attention to assisting the spectator in interpreting his major works by means of appended texts, juxtaposed images on his frames, and elaborate exhibition catalogues that one concludes he expected one to construct the kind of Ruskinian narrative of interpretation that he quoted so approvingly in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood.

For example, in the he wrote for the painting's exhibition, Hunt explained:

Scripturally, the subject is "the Shadow of Death," — the bearing of the first burden of the Curse of Adam. Morally, it is this also: the bestowing of Life in trust for future universal good, rather than for immediate personal joy. Surely there are enough of every class who have felt the burdensomness of toil, the relief at his cessation; and also enough of those who have battled against the temptation to seek this world's glory at the expense of their peace with the silent Father, and who may be encouraged to persevere. [Mr. Holman Hunt's Picture, "The Shadow of Death" (London: Thomas Agnew: [1873]), p. 2.]

The Shadow of Death is thus meant to present a realistic image of Christ as a carpenter, and the intensely accurate description of the material reality within which the historical Christ lived and worked in turn is meant to enable us to understand certain spiritual rules or laws. Following an old artistic tradition, Hunt attempts to create a meditative image whose pictorial details prompt the spectator to experience Christian dogma more fully than otherwise possible.

If one were to tell the story of how one realized some of the meanings that the artist intended The Shadow of Death to convey, one would start in the Ruskinian manner with the way one's eye is carried by each of those entrances to a portion of the painting that turns out to bear ideological as well as visual importance. Looking, say, first at rich fabrics in the left foreground that the woman has obviously been handling and possibly examining, we realize that she is Mary, the mother of Christ, and even without Hunt's catalogue we probably realize the significance of her act. The obvious contrast between the sumptuously rich goods near the chest and the rest of the workshop interior draws attention to the objects and the person examining them, even though they clearly play a subsidiary role in the painting. Mary, we understand, has been looking at the gifts of the Magi, probably to reassure herself about the nature and fate of her son, who she has been told will be king; and in the midst of her examination, she looks up in time to perceive her son's shadow cast upon the wall in such a way as to create a frighteningly prefigurative image of her son crucified, dying the death, as Hunt tells us, of the lowest criminals. [Crucifixion, in fact, seems to have been the punishment, not as Christian commentators so long asserted, of the lowliest of malefactors but rather of those punished for political rebellion.] Looking again at the painting, we find our eyes drawn to the patch of red of a fillet (or band that holds on the headress worn in the middle east), and following that, our eyes are led to the painting's formal, iconographic, iconological, and spiritual center, the face of the praying Christ. At this point, we may sense that the two visual entrances, which contrast the illuminated face of Christ with this dark, literal fore-shadow of his fate, are iconologically significant. Upon contrasting the painting's two points of reference, one first assumes, perhaps, that since one brings the spectator to the Crucifixion and the other to Christ, these images chiefly depict the ironic contrast of the thankfully praying Christ and his horrible fate. Those who know The Scapegoat, however, will also perceive the likeness between red wool that head of the sacrificial animal bears and the fillet that Christ will replace on his head after his prayers and labor (William Holman Hunt, 120). Both entrances to the painting, we realize, serve as images that prefigure the Crucifixion, and I assume that they serve as a form of reinforcement or semantic overdetermination. In other words, these formal devices that lead us into the three-dimensional space of the painted world as well as to its meaning supplement each other, so that which ever one we take, we shall arrive at the ideas and mood Hunt intends.

From this point we may likewise take many ideational paths through The Shadow of Death, no one of which is abolutely necessary to an adequate experience of the painting. One might, for instance, look at other formal elements and consider the points to which they lead, or one might well consider why the painting so obviously emphasizes that Christ is a worker, a strong-limbed member of the lower orders. One might decide, as Hunt's pamphlet instructs, that by this emphasis the picture reveals the nature and extent of Christ's great sacrifice in assuming human nature and human labors. Similarly, one might also perceive independently that Hunt intended The Shadow of Death to praise all those who share with Christ the labors of an earthly existence and specifically those who work with their hands. As the catalogue points out, "as each new age is called on to solve new moral and social questions, so new lessons are unfolded in the teaching of the life of Christ. One of the problems of our age concerns the duty of the workman; his life, as now examined, furnishes an example of the dignity of labour" (p. 2).

Meditating on a different aspect of the picture can bring us to similar realizations. The Shadow of Death, which serves as a complex meditative image of the Crucifixion and Passion, draws upon several types to lead the spectator to religious wonder. Considered from within the network of interrelated types that the painting offers, its representation of divine descent into human flesh, we perceive, is itself a type of Christ's later sufferings, just as is the image of the Crucifixion that Mary sees. Our eyes and minds can take other paths to reach the same central realization. For example, looking at the image of the brazen serpent that the frame bears and then comparing it to the image of Crucifixion, one might recognize again how many elements in the painting bear upon the Saviour's coming fate. The artist again assists the viewer with his exhibition pamphlet, which in this case cites the brazen serpent (a type that Hunt had earlier employed in his stained-glass design for Melchizedek and on the frame of the Liverpool version of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple). The presence of the brazen serpent suggests that the painting is also an image concerning faith when faith seems absurd because so opposed to the ways of normal human life and logic. You recall that God sent serpents to plague the Israelites after they had broken faith with Him and set up the golden calf. When Moses prayed, yet again, to God to save his people from themselves and despite themselves, he commanded Moses to have a brass image of a serpent placed on a T-shaped pole. If the people gazed on that, they would be saved from the plague of poisonous snakes. Christian interpreters had long taken this episode in the Bible to prefigure Christ on the Cross, meditating on which could save one from one's own falling away, from one's own idolatries. Looked at in the light of two images or types of blind faith, Hunt's painting seems intended to chide but also reassure all those of little faith, like Mary herself, who doubt God's plan, the kingship of Christ, and the divine importance of labor.

One may go even further and speculate that since Hunt was such a skilled interpreter of scripture, he may have intended Christ's upraised hands to recall Moses's victory over the Amelekites in Exodus 17:9-13, a particularly complex type combining victory over God's enemies with sacrifice that had a long artistic heritage (See Shapiro, 17-18). In addition, one realizes that Hunt wanted his picture to embody his own moral emphasis on following the dictates of God rather than man, at whatever the costs to oneself. Since the words of the pamphlet so closely echo Hunt's own private statements in his letters and diaries about his difficulties with The Shadow of Death, it is probable that he wanted it to bear some kind of personal or autobiographical meaning: Christ was in some sense both an image of the suffering artist himself and a comfort to him in his troubles (See Landow, "Shadow of Death," 204-12).

Narratives of perception, like all narratives, must end, hopefully with some resolution and effective closure. According to most writers on narrative beginning with Aristotle, plots require the resolution of a problem generated by a conflict or blockage. In an interpretive narrative of the kind I have been trying to create, resolution takes the form of the interpretation itself, which resolves a conflict provided by something not understood and therefore puzzling or discomforting. What provides closure for a narrative of interpretation, or, to restate the question, where does one chose to end one's narrative of interpretation? Ruskin, we recall, chose to end his with a climactic presentation of the typological significance of a central image in the Tintoretto Annunciation, a presentation that had the effect of changing our conception of the entire world of that painting, which suddenly changed from ruined material world to one suffused by divine grace and meaning. My explanation of the various types that Hunt employs in The Shadow of Death has much the same effect, but no single one offers an obvious point to close this narrative. This problem does remind one, however, that one shapes (or fictionalizes) narratives, particularly those with autobiographical components, by choosing where to end them.

Perhaps the most suitable point to end such an interpretive narrative is with the realization that a meditative image like The Shadow of Death produces no single narrative. Such a claim posits no unlimitedly subjective interpretation of the painting, though it does posit that Hunt's work permits various narratives. In other words, one person may enter the painting by means of the drapery in the lower left foreground, another by means of the fillet, a third at Christ's face, and yet another may glance briefly at the painting, study the frame, consider the title, and then focus upon the foreshadowed Crucifixion. The point is that the painting, like all paintings, offers many paths to the same set of realizations, and therefore no one narrative suffices.


Buckley, J. H. The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture . Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press: 1951.

Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon: 1961.

Landow, George P. "J. D. Harding and John Ruskin on Nature's Infinite Variety." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28 (1970), 369-80 [Full text].

Landow, George P. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Culture. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. [Full text.]

Landow, George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979 [Full text.]

Landow, George P. "William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death.'" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 55 (1972), 197-239.

Landow, George P. "'Your Good Influence on Me:' The Correspondence of John Ruskin and William Holman Hunt." Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 59 (1976-1977), 96-126, 367-96. Full text.

Mr. Holman Hunt's Picture, "The Shadow of Death". London: Thomas Agnew: [1873].

Rolnik, Mark. "Hunt's Pictorial Unity, 1870-1905" in the exhibition catalgue, Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts . Providence: Rhode Island: Brown University, 1985).

Ruskin, John. Works, eds. E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1909-1912.

Edward Said, "A Meditation on Beginnings," Salmagundi 2 (1968).

Shapiro, Meyer. Words and Pictures. On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text . The Hague: 1973.

Last modified 12 June 2007