The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. William Holman Hunt. 1854-60. Oil on canvas, 33 3/4 x 55 1/2 in. .

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ince Hunt’s first elaborate use of typological symbolism — what we may term his typological program — first appears in complete form in The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, I propose to examine that work before The Scapegoat, which was completed four years earlier. He had begun his version of Christ's disputation with the doctors in 1854, before The Scapegoat , but he encountered so much difficulty in obtaining models that he was forced to relinquish it for a time, and he turned to the other, far simpler work.

Left: Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep). Oil paint on canvas. 1853. Support: 432 x 584 mm; frame: 785 x 940 x 85 mm. Tate Gallery, London, ref. no. N05665. Presented by the Art Fund in 1946. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). Right: . [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Like his earlier Druids picture, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple makes use of a standard Pre-Raphaelite compositional scheme in which an enclosed space occupying most of the painting is contrasted to an exterior glimpsed through a window or doorway. The standard composition employed by the Pre-Raphaelites places figures against a wall open at the top, side, or both; in its chief variant, the plane behind the figures is pierced by a window or door. Although both formal and iconographic considerations led to this kind of composition, it is clear that technical considerations were chiefly responsible. As Allen Staley has pointed out in The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (1973),"the two most conspicuous components of Pre-Raphaelite naturalism, which were present from the start, were minute detail and bright colour with a minimum of shadow" (5; see also 24-25). Staley is correct in further suggesting that in abandoning chiaroscuro, Hunt and his associates flattened their works, often producing pictures with little sense of air or space. Although Hunt may have emphasized that he and his friends wished to avoid the conventionally academic serpentine groundplan, their painting in such a high key prevented their making use of it anyway. In their landscapes, histories, and attempts at genre, the Pre-Raphaelite circle attempted various solutions to the problems created by such bright color and absence of shadow. Hunt's Our English Coasts, 1852, for example, employs an arrangement which has strong resemblance to the plateau composition of the Northern Renaissance, while Arthur Hughes's Home from the Sea makes ingenious use of shadow to create a sense of space. Placing his figures in a patch of bright sunlight, Hughes inserts the shadow of a tree behind them, with another patch of sunlight beyond, thus creating three zones which lead the viewer into the picture space.

Left: Arthur Hughes. Home from the Sea. 1863. Oil on canvas, 20 x 25 3/4 in. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.. Right: A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day refusing to shield himself from danger by wearing a Roman Catholic badge. Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96). 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 36 ½ x 24 ¼ inches. Formerly Gallery of Modern Art, The Huntington Hartford Collection, New York.

The more usual Pre-Raphaelite solution of placing the figures flat against a wall, a scheme which appears in its simplest form in Millais's A Huguenot, successfully evades the problem of creating depth by simply cutting off the movement of the spectator's eye into space.

When the Pre-Raphaelites then open up a distance behind it, they create a distant background without having to effect a transition between it and the foreground plane. Thus, the wall is open at the top to reveal a background "depth" in Rossetti's La Donna della Fiamma, P. H. Calderon's Broken Vows, Millais's Apple Blossoms (1859), and Burne-Jones's illustration The Summer Snow. Hunt employs a scheme whereby the wall is open at top and sides in both the Druids picture and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple , and Rossetti makes use of a similar arrangement in Found (begun 1853).

The chief variant of this scheme — piercing the plane behind the figure with a door or window — occasionally produced the effect of an arcade, as did Hunt in The Eve of St. Agnes and Collins in Berengaria's Alarm. Millais's Ferdinand and Isabella (1849) and Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin reveal similar compositions. Occasionally, as in Millais's Isabella, Rossetti's Maids of Elfin Mere (1856) and Paolo and Francesca , Hughes's April Love, and Egg's Travelling Companions , this pictorial scheme is used solely to resolve the problems of creating a sense of depth in an otherwise flat composition, or to relieve the potentially claustrophobic effects of an enclosed space; but often, this scheme has some narrative or iconographic purpose as well. For example, Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents uses it to separate the Holy Family within their sacred space from the sheep outside, but his North-West Passage and Henry Wallis's Death of Chatterton employ it to suggest a life, an infinity, which lies beyond this existence. Hunt's Claudio and Isabella , like Wallis's picture, also uses the window to intensify the opposition between a confined interior existence and an outside freedom. Rossetti's many applications of the window device frequently imply a similar use, as in Proserpine (1874). Millais's illustrations St. Agnes Eve, The Death of the Old Year, and The Lost Piece of Silver also work in this way. This compositional scheme provides the basis of what is perhaps the single most popular pictorial theme for English book illustration from the 1850s through the 1870s — the pensive woman at the window. One finds the contemplative maiden gazing out at a world beyond her in works as different as Millais's illustration St. Agnes Eve and Whistler's illustration to Count Burkhardt (1862).

Closely related to this schema in which the wall behind the figures is pierced by a window, is the use of a mirror to open and expand the interior space. This device derives directly from the Arnolfini Portrait and appears in Hunt's The Awakening Conscience , Fanny Holman Hunt (1869), Il Dolce Far Niente , and the various versions of The Lady of Shalott he created between 1856 and 1896. Augustus Egg used it in the first panel of Past and Present and Rossetti in Lady Lilith .

Although such compositional schemes are not original, their extreme flattening of picture space does seem to be the invention of the Pre-Raphaelites. The use of an open window or area leading into a distance was a conventional device of contemporary portraiture and is present in Sir Francis Grant's Portrait of General Sir Josiah Champagne. As Ruskin pointed out in the second volume of Modern Painters, "the painter of interiors feels like a caged bird, unless he can throw a window open, or set the door ajar" (Works, 4.82), and one finds many examples in early and mid-Victorian genre subjects as well. Thus, Thomas Webster's A Letter from Abroad opens a window, while Richard Redgrave's The Poor Teacher opens a door. Although these pictures partially anticipate Pre-Raphaelite work, they do not flatten the figures against a wall, producing such shallow compositions.

Sources in Northern Renaissance Painting: The Cloth of Honor

Northern painting and manuscript illumination provided an even more important source of Pre-Raphaelite compositional schemes. Whereas the Limbourgs, the Boucicaut Master, and their contemporaries were working toward the conquest of visual space, the Pre-Raphaelites consciously abandoned the use of chiaroscuro, aerial perspective, and other devices used for centuries to create the illusion of depth. They gravitated inevitably towards the compositional schemes of Northern painting; but it is difficult to determine whether many of the obvious resemblances of Pre-Raphaelite pictorial arrangements to those of Northern art exemplify influence or confluence, since, having begun with similar pictorial axioms, the English artists may have arrived naturally at the same solutions as their great predecessors. Nonetheless, since we know that some of the Pre-Raphaelites were well acquainted with the Flemish masters, influence seems more likely.

Left: The Virgin at the Fountain Jan van Eyck. 1439. Panel. 7 ½ x 4 ¾ inches. Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp.. Right: Gerard David. The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor). c. 1505. Panel, 41 x 56 3/4 in. National Gallery, London..

Ultimately, one can trace the Pre-Raphaelite use of a wall parallel to the picture plane back to the venerable device of the Cloth of Honor, which is in an already much developed form in Boucicaut venerating St. Catherine from the Boucicaut Hours. In one popular version of this scheme, the main figures are arranged frontally facing the spectator while a distant background appears on either side of the Cloth of Honor. Such a composition with equal space on each side of the backdrop appears in the Boucicaut Hours Adoration of the Magi, Van Eyck's The Virgin at the Fountain, Memlinc's Washington Madonna, David's Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, and Dürer's Feast of the Rose Garlands. Hunt, Rossetti, and Brown knew the Van Eyck and the David, and it is possible that they had come upon the Dürer in reproductions. Such Pre-Raphaelite knowledge of this particular compositional scheme is of interest, because Brown employed it in Our Lady of Good Children -- though he may have drawn upon Bellini rather than Northern sources - and it also serves as the basis for Work and Rossetti's Dante's Dream.

Sources in Northern Renaissance Painting: The Cloth of Honor

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he more popular composition which uses a window or door to pierce the wall behind the figures also derives from Northern painting and manuscript illumination. The Boucicaut Hours Nativity and Charles VI and Pierre Salmon from the Dialogues de Pierre Salmon are early examples of it, the first placing a window at the center of the picture and the second on the left side. A third version, in which the wall is divided into an arcade, appears in the Donatrix Venerating the Madonna from a Book of Hours apparently painted in the Boucicaut Master's workshop.

These works are antecedents of the Flemish pictures Hunt and Rossetti saw during their travels - including the Annunciation panels of the Ghent altarpiece the Rolin Madonna, Rogier van der Weyden's Annunciation, and Metsys's St. Anne altarpiece.

Left: Rollin Madonna Jan van Eyck. c. 1425-32. 137 ¾ inches. Cathedral of St. Bavon, Ghent. Right: The Annunciation. Rogier van de Weyden. c. 1435. Panel, 33 ⅞ x 36 ¼ inches Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The simple expedient of cutting a window into the wall so that an opening shows at the side of the chief figures appears in David's Virgin and Child with a Bowl of Milk and Memlinc's Virgin and Child from the Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove, both of which Hunt and Rossetti knew, and the latter of which was the subject of Rossetti's sonnet (See Chapter 3, for a discussion of this poem.). Since Hunt mentioned that the Pre-Raphaelites studied Northern engravings and woodcuts at the British Museum Print Room, it is quite possible that he also came upon this compositional scheme in works such as Schöngauer's Virgin and Child with a Parrot and Nativity.

One should also mention that the various compositional schemes of Northern Renaissance art had been revived in mid-nineteenth-century German illustrations of the Bible.

Left: Joseph acknowledging his brethren. Right: The Raising of the Widow's Son. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. 1865.

For example, Gustav Jäger's Joseph Acknowledging His Brethren, which was reproduced in the 1851 Art-Journal opens an arcade at the left side of the picture, and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's The Raising of the Widow's Son of 1855 employs essentially the same composition that Hunt used for The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. (The Art-Journal, 17 (1855), 320 publicized this volume, pointing out that his Bible pictures were being published with an English text by Williams and Norgate, London. An American edition with descriptions by the Rev. John Tatlock was published by the Boston firm of H. H. Carter & Karrick in 1888.) Although the influence of Flemish painting may have been reinforced by contemporary German work, for Hunt and Rossetti the experience of their 1849 trip to Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, and Paris was far more important.


The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Tate, 1984.

Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio Press, 1981.

Last Modified 7 January 2022