Left: The Shadow of Death. William Holman Hunt. 1869-73. Oil on canvas, 84 5/16 x 66 3/16 inches. Manchester City Art Galleries. Right: The Shadow of Death. Oil on canvas, 94 x73.6 cm Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds Museums and Galleries LEEAG.PA.1903.019 Gift from the executors of the estate of C. G. Oates, 1903. [Click on images to enlarge them.] The Leeds version, which Hunt began later, has much brighter colors and less feeling of a late afternoon. It also omits the red fillet.

The Shadow of Death, which shows Hunt attempting a more monumental religious art than ever before, is one of his most successful fusions of realism and religious symbolism. This painting comments importantly upon his earlier ones — Christ and the Two Marys, The Light of the World, The Scapegoat, and The Finding — and thus it provides us with a welcome opportunity to observe the development of Hunt's artistic program a quarter century after he first began to formulate it. We have the painter's valuable assistance: following his practice with the exhibition of his earlier work, he wrote or perhaps supervised the writing of a catalogue for the picture. This pamphlet , which The Times described as "brief, modest, and well-written," opens with the explanation that The Shadow of Death "was painted in the conviction that Art, as one of its uses, may be employed to realise facts of importance in the history of human thought and faith". Affirming that "Art is many sided," the pamphlet politicly allows that much fine work is still being created in traditional modes but points out that Hunt has chosen a different course:

While he admires much that is being done by painters who work with loyal adherence to the traditions of Art, he is inclined rather to follow them as a designer, in appealing to the current spirit and intelligence of the age. For more than one generation, Scriptural critics have expounded the events of Biblical history by referring to still-existing Oriental customs. The public, therefore, is better instructed than that which Ghirlandajo or Paolo Veronese addressed . . . Feeling that we should paint for our spectators as they did for theirs, the painter is glad to be saved from the difficulty of competing with the great masters on their own ground. [ Mr. Holman Hunt's Picture, "The Shadow of Death," 1.]

Assuring the reader that there is no "danger of vulgarising" the truths of scripture by realism, the catalogue concludes with a page that explains the archeological correctness of the tools, clothing, and other details of the picture.

Apparently echoing Thomas Carlyle's words to the painter (I. 355), the pamphlet points out that "to this day there is no picture representing Christ in full manhood enduring the burden of common toil . . . Mr. Hunt aims to show Him, as He may have been seen by His brethren, while still gaining His bread by the sweat of His face, during His first but longest humiliation." Since this painting presents an obvious prefiguration of the Passion and Crucifixion, it is worth observing that in Hunt's view God's humiliating descent into human flesh is both the first stage of his later sufferings and a natural type of them. The painter therefore places great importance upon the laboring humanity of Christ:

The picture represents our Lord as the "Man Christ" "gaining his bread by the sweat of His face," presenting Him to our view subjected to the ordinary conditions of man's nature, and compelled to realise in His own person the effect of the curse pronounced upon Adam and his posterity: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake: in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth unto thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Genesis 3:17-19). Our blessed Lord was in very truth man in all things, sin only excepted.


Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (Middle) J. R. Herbert, Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth (Right) William Gale, Nazareth. Click upon image to obtain a larger image, which takes longer to download.

In emphasizing the humanity of Christ, Hunt painted him as a lean, vigorous, muscular man, something which Ford Madox Brown had already done almost two decades before in Jesus Washing Peter's Feet .. Representations of this kind were rare, but there was nothing particularly unusual about scenes of Christ's early life. Georges de la Tour's Joseph as Carpenter in the Louvre (1640-5) portrays Joseph at work while the child Christ holds up a candle to illuminate his task.


J. R. Herbert, Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth. 1847. Oil on Canvas, 32 51 inches. Courtesy of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

Hunt knew J. R. Herbert's Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth, which does not take place within the workshop, and Millais had long before painted Christ in the House of His Parents. While Hunt was at work on The Shadow of Death, William Gale exhibited Nazareth, a scene of the child Christ in the workshop, at the 1869 Royal Academy; this rather weak picture, which was probably unknown to Hunt, did anticipate some of Hunt's approaches to symbolism and a realistic portrayal of Middle Eastern life.

Because Gale was one of those already influenced by The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, one cannot make much of these anticipations, but the point is that he did represent Christ in a carpenter's shop. Hunt's chief novelty, which disturbed so many of his contemporaries, was to portray Christ himself as a carpenter.

Hunt explains that this conception of the Saviour leads naturally into his subject, for Christ

has been hard at work all the day, and 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.

This realistically depicted action, the pamphlet urges, naturally suggests a further — a typological — meaning: "It is thought this expression is in perfect harmony with the incident and the work He came to do. "Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John iii. 14-15)."

Left: Mary turning from the Gifts of the Magi to the Shadow (from the Leeds version). Right: The Shadow against the tools, which function as torture instruments (from the Manchester version). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Mary, who has been looking at the gifts of the Magi, looks up in time to perceive this prevision of the Crucifixion:

Her attitude tells of her fright and terror though her features are not portrayed. The shadow of the wearied Lord falling on the rack which holds the carpenter's tools, with the mandrel placed vertically in the centre, at once literally realises the form of a cross, and the hands falling thereon suggest the idea of a figure nailed thereupon, and thus the particular death Our Lord would die.

Furthermore, the tools become types of those used to torture Christ, while the reeds standing in the corner of the shop similarly prefigure the mock scepter thrust upon him during his torments. Standing in a plank which Christ has been cutting, a saw casts a shadow upon the wall that clearly provides a prefiguration of the spear that pierced his side.

Left: Saw and tools (from the Leeds version, which omits the fillet recalling The Scapegoat). Right: Saw, fillet, and tools (from the Manchester version). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

At the foot of the sawhorse in the lower right-hand corner lies the scarlet fillet that is part of Christ's head-gear: here is a more complex image, acting as both type and antitype. When the scapegoat, which was a type of Christ, was sent forth into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people, it bore scarlet wool upon its horns to represent that burden. When he was painting his interpretation of this subject in 1855, Hunt commented about "the vagueness of the description in the Talmud: of the form in which the scarlet was placed on the head I feel it to be very much left to myself. So I merely placed it round about the horns — to suggest the crown of thorns" (Diary 14 February 1855, Ryl. Eng. MS. 1211). Properly speaking, the red headband in The Shadow of Death provides a type of the Crown of Thorns, while in a somewhat looser manner it recapitulates the scarlet wool born by the representative of Israel's sins, fulfilling that type in part. Of course, both types are only completed by the Crown of Thorns itself. This device recapitulates Hunt's earlier attempt at creating a prefigurative image of the Passion in The Scapegoat, for he now attempts such symbolism in a subject more accessible to his audience.

The two versions depiction of the Old Testament scroll and pomegran2tes. Left: (Leeds version). Right: (Manchester version).

Christ's girded loins also suggest the costume of the Crucifixion, while the plumb-bob dangling from the rack of tools suggests Christ's heart, because of its shape and placement within the shadow. On the window sill sit two kinds of objects, both of which symbolize the Gospel scheme: a scroll, almost certainly some part of the Old Testament, probably bears a text, such as Isaiah, accepted to be a prophecy of the Messiah. The text cannot be read but because Hunt uses this iconographic device elsewhere its presence here seems likely. Next to the scroll one finds two pomegranates, or passion fruits, long taken to represent the Passion of Christ. But here, one must point out that, in the manner of many Victorian exegetes, the painter has moved from typological to allegorical modes. Two other details also act only loosely as types: the star-shaped window above Christ's left shoulder suggests rather obviously the Star of Bethlehem, while the window behind him creates a nimbus around his head — much as the Master of Flemalle's Virgin and Child before a Fire Screen in the National Gallery, London, uses the fan-shaped screen to create the effect of a halo.

There is, however, no possibility of influence here, since the Campin Virgin and Child before a Firescreen was first known in the 1890s, and did not arrive in the National Gallery until 1910. In a smaller working sketch Hunt had painted a rectangular window, but this failed to evoke the image of the halo, and he enriched the final version of the painting with both the rounded window and the scarlet fillet as well. Finally, there is the landscape glimpsed through the window, which the catalogue informs us "represents the hills of Galilee," for this view suggests the future scenes of Christ's ministry.

All these realistically occurring details combine to create a prefigurative image of Christ's Crucifixion and Passion, something which both the viewer and Mary are intended to realize. She has just gone to look once more at the gifts of the Magi, which suggest that Christ will have earthly power and glory. She looks up in time to observe — and be horrified by — a vision that, instead, he will die the basest of deaths. Because this contrast, which provides one of the main burdens of the picture, so reflects Carlyle's earlier detailed criticism of The Light of the World, it appears that here the Sage had an influence. Carlyle had emphasized that Christ always disenchanted "such as would suppose that the kingdom of heaven that He preached would bring to Him or to His adherents earthly glory or riches" (I. 358), and he also mocked Hunt's early painting for representing the Saviour in the kind of garments and ornament at which Mary has been gazing. The Shadow of Death in consequence becomes a bitter annunciation to Mary of her son's fate, and it is therefore not irrelevant to note that Hunt's picture bears several important resemblances to earlier Annunciations: the relation between Mary and the "annunciating" shadow, which takes the place of the angelic messenger, the setting within a room whose window looks out upon a distant landscape, and the symbolic devices, particularly the pomegranates on the window ledge, all make this seem Hunt's version of the older theme. Furthermore, he uses his iconography, like that of Northern Renaissance Annunciations, once again to generate a miraculous fusion of body and spirit, time and eternity.

Hunt's intentions were complex in The Shadow of Death As the pamphlet explains,

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 burdensomeness of toil, the relief at its cessation; and enough also 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.

First of all, The Shadow of Death is thus meant to present the spectator with a realistic image of Christ as carpenter. Second, by this means it reveals the nature of Christ's great sacrifice in assuming human nature, and third, it is intended to comfort all those who share with him the labors of an earthly existence; specifically, it is meant to dignify labor and the laboring classes, for, as the catalogue points out, "It is an evidence of the Divine nature of Christianity, that as each 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." Fourth, Hunt wished his picture to embody his own moral emphasis upon following the dictates of God rather than man, at whatever the cost to oneself. Fifth, since the words of the pamphlet so closely echo Hunt's own private statements about his difficulties with The Shadow of Death, it is probable that he also wanted it to bear a personal significance as well — Christ was in some sense both an image of the suffering artist himself and a comfort to him in his troubles. Sixth, the picture was intended to provide a meditative image of the Crucifixion and Passion, and it draws upon several types to create such an embodiment of religious wonder: Christ's descent into human flesh is itself a type of his later sufferings, just as is the image of the Crucifixion Mary sees. The pamphlet's citation of the brazen serpent, which Hunt employed in Melchizedek and on the frame of the Liverpool version of The Finding, suggests that the painter wanted the spectator to have in mind other types of Christ as well. Since Hunt was such a skilled exegete, it is possible, for example, that he intended Christ's upraised hands to recall Moses's victory over the Amalekites in Exodus 17:9-13, a particularly complex type whose history in art Meyer Shapiro has recently unravelled (Words and Pictures. On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text [The Hague, 1973], l7-18 and passim.).

Left: Christ and Two Marys [The Risen Christ with the Two Marys in the Garden of Joseph of Aramathea]. William Holman Hunt. 1847-c. 1900. Oil on canvas, laid down on panel, 46 l/2 x 37 inches. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Right: Man of Sorrows with Hands Raised by Albrecht Dürer. c. 1500. Engraving, 4 ½ x 2 ¾ inchesMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The question of Christ's pose with uplifted hands brings us to another significance for Hunt of The Shadow of Death its criticism and recapitulation of his earlier work. In this picture Hunt was finally able to make use of the stance he had adopted in the long abandoned Christ and the Two Marys, one which he may well have originally borrowed from Dürer's Man of Sorrows with Hands Raised or from Italian sources (see Strauss 58).  At the same time, he was able to create an image of Christ's sufferings in a more accessible (and palatable) form than The Scapegoat , while creating a more human representation of the Saviour than he had in The Light of the World.

In schematizing Hunt's various intentions for the sake of demonstrating how complex is The Shadow of Death, one must beware of creating a false impression. These themes are all unified in his image of Christ the carpenter, just as he believed they must be if he were to have any hope of creating the kind of art that could combine realism and symbolism, matter and spirit, type and antitype. The complexity of his program was often so strange to many of his contemporaries that he had difficulty in explaining the attitudes his art required. He wrote to Edward Lear, the landscape painter and writer of nonsense verse, before the picture's public exhibition, trying to explain how his subject could have a normal historical existence and yet act to foreshadow something else:

This is the proper place to answer one observation of yours, which you make on my view that the treatment is simply historic. I remember that I said the Virgin's attention was arrested by the Shadow as foreshadowing His Crucifixion, but this does not seem to me at all supernatural of necessity, for many other a reformer's mother has forseen without supernatural revelation that her son's career would end under the hands of the public executioner . . . I never intended to suggest that it was not sentimental and poetic in its treatment, for if so I should have professed that it was without what alone makes artistic work interesting in my eyes. [11 February 1873; London (Ryl. Eng. MS. 1214).]

From Hunt's insistence upon his picture's being "simply historic," we can see that he was having trouble convincing Lear that a type possesses its own reality independently from that which it signifies. According to a typological view of history, a person (or situation) can prefigure the coming of Christ and the Gospel scheme without any supernatural interference or revelation. But Lear did not want to accept such a notion, nor, apparently, did he want to allow that an art making use of types could be complexly symbolic and deeply moving at the same time. Characteristically, Hunt, who was always concerned to probe the limits of his art, attempted a painting that demands both an immediate emotional response and one that is meditative and analytical. In The Shadow of Death, I believe he succeeded in his ambitious program.

Created 2001; last modified 29 October 2020