n biblical typology Holman Hunt found the solution to the problem of creating a "sublime" symbolic realism. He indicates that Ruskin was the first important source of his use of this form of symbolism, but there were several later ones as well, and it is necessary to examine them briefly to perceive how complex were the influences upon him. although Hunt first encountered such typological readings of art in 1847 when he read the second volume of Modern Painters, he did not immediately set out to employ typological symbolism, largely because he was not then a Christian.

Jan van Eyck. The Ghent Altarpiece. 1434-36. Panel, 11ft x 15ft (3.5m x 4.6m) Saint Bavo Cathedral, Bruges.

Of equal importance, he had not actually seen works which used typology to combine realistic style with elaborate iconography; nor did he find the opportunity for more than two decades after he first read the critic's interpretation to inspect the painting which Ruskin had used as his chief example. Therefore, his trip with Rossetti to the continent in the autumn of 1849 was of crucial importance, since it provided him for the first time with examples of great painting which employed prefigurative symbolism. Limiting ourselves only to those works which he saw during his visit to Paris, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, we discover that Hunt encountered an impressive number of the major works of the Flemish masters — among others Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, Van der Paele Madonna, and the Rolin Madonna:

Left: The Van der Paele Madonna; Right: The Rolin Madonna. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The young painters also saw Memlinc's major works in the Hospital of St. John, Bruges, including both the Virgin and Child from the Diptych of Martin von Nieuwenhove and Triptych of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (also called Altarpiece of the Two St. Johns)

Left: Virgin and Child; Right: Triptych of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine.

In addition, they saw Rogier van der Weyden's Louvre Annunciation, Gerard David's Judgment of Cambyses and altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ, and Hugo van der Goes's Death of the Virgin. It has long been well known that Hunt and his associates drew upon the Arnolfini Portrait, which the National Gallery, London, had acquired in 1842, and Hunt, several times in the course of his career, similarly made use of the Ghent altarpiece. In addition to these two works, he encountered typological and other forms of "disguised symbolism" in Van Eyck's Van der Paele Madonna, Memlinc's Floreins Triptych, Joos van Gent's Crucifixion Triptych, and Pieter Coecke's Last Supper.

The fascinating problem of Northern Renaissance influence upon Pre-Raphaelite art and literature deserves a full-length treatment. For the moment, it is necessary to point out that the evidence for this crucial 1849 visit to Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent appears in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I, 192-3 and the more detailed (and often more tantalizing) letters Rossetti wrote to his brother, Collinson, and other members of their circle (see Letters, I, 59-88). The various volumes of Les Primitifs Flamands permit one to determine what works Hunt and Rossetti could have seen when they do not specifically mention them, and Edouard Michel's catalogue raisonné of Flemish works in the Louvre is often particularly helpful in indicating that certain works, such as the Annunciation by Rogier van der Weyden, have been continually on view since their appearance in the Louvre (273).

Left: Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) by Jan van Eyck. 1434. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London (NG186). Right: The mirror from the painting, which appears in many nineteenth-century English works.

Martin Davies's invaluable volumes of Les Primitifs Flamands, which cover the holdings of the National Gallery, London (Antwerp, 1953-4), reveal that only Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (purchased in 1842) was available to the Pre-Raphaelites before their trip abroad. Van Eyck's Man with a Turban was purchased in 1851 and Hugo van der Goes's Nativity in 1854. The first great exhibition of the Flemish masters in nineteenth-century England appears to have been the 1857 Manchester exhibition, and at least ten works shown then eventually became part of the collections of the National Gallery; one of which, the Bouts Virgin and Child, was presented by Queen Victoria in 1863. Approximately twenty important Flemish works were acquired by the National Gallery in the 1860s, and these included works by Campin, Van Eyck, Bouts, David, Memlinc, and Van der Weyden. What is perhaps most interesting about these dates is that they suggest that, as important as was the Flemish influence upon the Pre-Raphaelites, it was the Pre-Raphaelites themselves (and their obvious predecessors, Dyce, Maclise, and Mulready) who created the taste for Northern art in England!

Perhaps equally important, as Alastair Grieve has shown, the Pre-Raphaelites briefly came under the influence of the High Anglican party in Oxford, certainly by 1849 and possibly earlier. although Grieve does not mention it, much of the symbolism employed by Hunt and Millais in their works of 1850 is specifically typological, something which is in accord with High Church readings of the Bible. Nonetheless, Hunt was not a believer at this early point in his career, and the great turning point came sometime in 1851 or 1852 when he converted to Christianity. He experienced an intensification of his belief, and perhaps even a second more violent conversion, when he visited the Holy Land in 1854, but he had several years earlier begun the course of Bible reading that he was to continue for the rest of his life. His firm belief, close knowledge of scriptures, and experience of the Middle East combined to make typological symbolism a solution to his search for an artistic program.

Created 2001. Last modified 27 October 2020