The Triumph of the Innocents. William Holman Hunt. Courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery version. Oil on canvas. 1883-1884.

Hunt was even more ambitious in The Triumph of the Innocents , his next major religious work, for here he tried his most daring solution to the problem of fusing matter and spirit. Like his other major pictures, The Triumph of the Innocents can be profitably considered both as Hunt's new version of traditional themes and as his implicit criticism of his earlier work. Combining the visionary method of The Light of the World with the typological method of The Finding, The Scapegoat, and The Shadow of Death, he produced a visionary realism. His return to this visionary mode shows that he still agreed with John Ruskin's high estimate of this form of art. In the third volume of Modern Painters (1856), the critic had insisted that

Nothing but unmixed good can accrue to any mind from the contemplation of Orcagna's Last Judgment or his Triumph of Death, or Angelico's Last Judgment and Paradise, or any of the scenes laid in heaven by the other faithful religious masters; and the more they are considered, not as works of art, but as real visions of real things, more or less imperfectly set down, the more good will be got by dwelling upon them. The same is true of all representations of Christ as a living presence among us now, as in Hunt's Light of the World. [Works, 5.86]

In distinguishing between Hunt's portrayal of Christ in his earlier picture as a living presence among us now" and "the scenes laid in heaven" by the earlier masters, Ruskin helps us define the painter's intention in The Triumph of the Innocents. Whether or not he was inspired by these words from Ruskin, Hunt wished to depart from his earlier mode of visionary allegory and rival the old masters with a vision of the afterlife. He did so by combining visionary art with his archeologically correct realism, attempting to intensify the effects of both.

The Light of the World recorded a vision that took form in his own mind, thus creating a pictorial emblem of that spiritual experience. The typological works, in contrast, gained access to the world of the spirit by means of symbols - types - which partake simultaneously of the material and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. Relying on the capacity of the typological image to generate the entire divine plan of salvation, Hunt had painted events of scriptural history which figured forth the Crucifixion and Passion. Whereas The Scapegoat and The Shadow of Death allow us to perceive the end of history already present in an Old Testament ritual and in an everyday occurrence in Christ's life as a worker; and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple enables us to see Christ entering human history as the Saviour himself; in The Triumph of the Innocents the painter permits us to see the interpenetration of time and eternity in a new way — the world of spirit and vision appears within our own world.

Hunt also has a new subject, the Resurrection. Where he had earlier concentrated upon the humanity of Christ and his later sufferings, he now paints an image of the afterlife, representing not the resurrection of Christ but that of the slaughtered innocents. In portraying Christianity's first >martyrs, Hunt returns to a theme he had treated in his Druids picture almost three and a half decades before. But whereas there he emphasized mercy — the subject of the competition for which it had originally been intended — now he sets forth the martyr's reward. We recall that while at work on the Christ and the Two Marys he had complained to Millais about the exhaustion of traditional religious inconography, offering the specific example of the Resurrection. In The Triumph of the Innocents he uses a visionary mode to create a new iconography for this theme.

The Paintings’s Three Chief Visionary Elements

The three chief visionary elements in the picture are the spirits of the martyred children, the sacred light which envelops them, and globes which rise from the stream of eternal life. Fortunately for the student of Hunt's work, the painter once again revealed his intentions in both his correspondence and an elaborate exhibition catalogue. According to the catalogue, we come upon the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt just at the moment that Mary is changing the garments in which she has wrapped Jesus "at the time of the escape from Bethlehem," when suddenly "Jesus recognizes the spirits of the slain Innocents . . . They reveal the signs of their martyrdom. Garlanded for the sacrifice, bearing branches and blossoms of trees, they progressively mark their understanding of the glory of their service." At the rear of this visionary company infants slowly awaken into their new spiritual life, yet bearing the marks of "earthly terror and suffering still impressed upon them. Towards the front are other spirits of children triumphing in completer knowledge of their service. One of them in priestly office leads the band. Those who follow cast down their tokens of martyrdom in the path of their recognised Lord" ("Epitome," The Triumph of the Innocents [London, 1885], 4). These children, who prefigure all Christian martyrs, also prefigure those martyrs" reward of eternal life. "Death is already seen to have no sting, the grave no victory" (9).

Left: The children waking into eternal life. Right: The bubble that contains Van Eyck’s vision from the Ghent Altarpiece.. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In Hunt's conceit the risen spirits of the martyred children thus appear to Christ, who dwells in the two realms of time and eternity. Hunt apparently considered his alternatives quite carefully before deciding to paint the children wakening to new life in the sight of Christ. He explained his imaginative conception of his subject to William Bell Scott, who visited him at his studio in 1879 when he was at work on The Triumph of the Innocents Scott relates that he had at first thought the "charmingly painted children were angels," and his friend had enlightened him in "one of the most interesting and charming letters I have ever received" (Autobiographical Notes, II, 228). In this letter Hunt explained one reason he did not depict the children as angels was that he wanted to avoid having to "pronounce the figures to be either subjective or objective. I wish to avoid positively declaring them to be more than a vision to the Virgin conjured up by her maternal love for her own child, the Saviour, who is to be calling her attention to them" (5 January 1880; II, 229). although the conclusion of his sentence would seem to suggest that the artist did intend the spectator to understand these figures as a "true vision," the important point is that Hunt wished to preserve an unsureness, a doubt, in the mind of the beholder. Tzetevan Todorov’s The Fantastic has recently attempted to define the nature of the literary fantastic in terms of the reader's inability to determine whether the events about which he is reading are natural or supernatural. Once the audience decides that the events are one or the other, the work becomes either a realistic explication of supposedly supernatural events or an acceptance of the supernatural which becomes allegory. According to this theorist, the effect of wonder and fascination are produced precisely by the audience's inability to decide in which realm the events are taking place. His definition of the experience of literary fantasy well describes a part of Hunt's purpose in The Triumph of the Innocents, for in making his ambitious attempt to combine two realms of existence, Hunt wished to create the effect of wonder, which was for him the essential condition of religious faith.

By including the spirits of the child-martyrs in his version of the Flight into Egypt, Hunt transformed a traditional theme to suit his own beliefs, giving a peculiarly Victorian intonation to the idea of resurrection. Death-bed scenes, particularly those of children, provided a major subject of Victorian novels, painting, and illustration, and the artist's choice of the slaughtered children to present eternal life through Christ struck a chord particularly congenial to his audience.

William Holman Hunt. The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. 1854-60. Oil on canvas, 33 ¾ x 55 ½ in. Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery.

Furthermore, The Triumph of the Innocents recapitulates certain themes of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. Eschewing the cluttered interior of that picture, he once again depicts Christ catching sight of the otherworldly, the eternal, and although as an infant he cannot completely comprehend the meaning of his vision, as he could in The Finding, he reveals that even during his infancy the Christ child had spiritual powers. Another point of resemblance to this earlier work appears in the fact that here again Hunt surrounds Christ by a group of figures bearing complex symbolic meanings. Like the Rabbis, these newly risen children symbolize, despite themselves, Christ's message, though unlike the Pharisees they gradually recognize their changed state. In addition, these children, "garlanded as were the ancient sacrifices," serve both as antitypes of the old levitical sacrifice and as types of Christ's own death. Considered not from the vantage point of Judaic law but from that of the pagan world, they also serve as types of Christ. Such a reading is suggested by Watkinson's perceptive recognition that "the figure on the ass is that of the Virgin Mary, but she is very unlike the usual Madonna; regal and pagan in appearance, she could as well be a Ceres or a Hera. The Christ Child too has the appearance, and even the iconographic attributes of a Bacchus, with his mass of dark-red curls." Like Dante and Milton, Hunt appears to have been consciously using non-Judaic history as a source of typological imagery (Watkinson, 132-33). Taking Watkinson's observations one step further, we can also say that The Triumph of the Innocents thus represents Hunt's first major attempt to blend the art of North and South, of Flanders and Italy, and it perhaps explains why his letters to Tupper while he was at work on this picture are so full of admiration for Greek sculpture.

In addition to these broad Christian meanings conveyed by the entire band, more specific prefigurations of Christ and his dispensation appear in several of the individual children. For instance, the figure who places his martyr's palm before Christ foreshadows, not only all later martyrs for Christ, but also his later entry into Jerusalem. Similarly, the child at the center not only serves as a type of all who die for their faith but also seems to be an imitatio Christi as well: looking wonderingly through the rent in his gown, which serves as a type for the wound in Christ's side, he holds part of a ruby necklace in his hand, which, as Watkinson perceived, produces the effect of three drops of blood. This device is perhaps derived from the drops of blood in Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents . The rubies here provide clear, if idiosyncratic, types of the three nails (or wounds), and they may as well be a symbol of the Trinity. Most important of the figures is the one who "in priestly office leads the band," for like Hunt's figure in Melchizedek he comments upon the nature of priestly office. He also provides Hunt with a means of using an iconographic device common in Early Netherlandish painting, for as a complex type of martyr, priest, and Christ himself, this little child enforces upon us the fact that the picture's symbols present the Saviour simultaneously as officiating priest and sacrifice. Of course, since Hunt did not, like Van der Goes, concern himself with the theme of the eternal mass, the correspondence cannot be exact (See Blum, Early Netherlandish Triptychs, 77-86). But it is nonetheless correct to say that Hunt was making his own Protestant version of this ancient iconographic program, for once again his concatenation of types and typical actions serves to create an image of this world that participates in eternity.

Hunt made his point even clearer by using two sources of light, one natural and one supernatural. As he explained in his letter to Scott, he had drawn upon his own visionary experiences when painting the spirits and the light they radiate. Writing somewhat apologetically, or at least hesitantly, to the agnostic Scott, he insists that he had relied "upon what, to use a presumptuous phrase, I will call my own experience of ideal personages"; and he makes it clear that by this last phrase he means, not a mere imaginative conception of the ideal, but an actual religious vision. According to Hunt, "these develop in solidity and brightness by degrees," and he therefore imagined that when the Virgin first caught sight of the children she scarcely discerned that they were not "natural figures under the natural light which illuminates the other surrounding objects." Only gradually does she realize that she has been granted a visitation of spirits, for only as the spiritual light illuminates the individual children does she perceive "the glory of their new birth." By "glory" Hunt intended Scott to understand both the light which surrounds them and their spiritual state, and hence he insists "the division of the two — the natural and supernatural illumination — cannot be avoided" (II, 220). He did assure him, though, that he would try to make both kinds of light harmonize more than they apparently had when the two men inspected the unfinished canvas.

Hunt's use of supernatural light in The Triumph of the Innocents, which provides an important parallel between it and The Light of the World, had its roots in the painter's own experience. But even if we accept his own account of visionary experience, we do not have to assume that he did not draw upon painterly sources as well. As Ruskin, anticipating Gombrich, points out, most of us derive our conceptions of natural phenomena from looking at paintings. Works of art, he insists, provide the schemata by which we perceive our world, and such an assertion is true even in matters of religion. Augustine and Bunyan, for instance, have provided the informing examples which shaped the conversion experiences of countless believers. So although we may readily grant the artist's sincerity in claiming to have had such visions, we may also assert that he learned the form of these visions from painting. It is hardly an eccentric claim that an artist's visual imagination is formed by the paintings and graphic works he sees. The use of supernatural illumination is such a commonplace in religious art that Hunt could have learned it in many places. Both the engravings of 0, which Hunt studied in the British Museum, and the various painting of the Flemish Masters he encountered on his 1849 pilgrimage to the continent are obvious sources, and later when he visited Florence and Venice he would have found other congenial examples of this form of illumination.

The third visionary element appears in the stream upon which the visionary company treads and the bubbles which rise from it. Hunt explains that the Holy Family is crossing a shallow stream which reflects the night sky when they are overtaken by the newly risen spirits. "The flood upon which the spiritual children advance forms a contrast to this, by being in motion, the living fountains of water the streams of eternal life — furnish this, mystically portrayed as ever rolling onward." The streams which the children dance along, he later adds, are not clouds such as "angels may be portrayed upon. They are from the fountain of the water of life, given to them that are athirst freely (athirst for fuller life). It is the spiritual eternal stream provided in exchange for the life that perisheth which has been to them so brief." This stream, one may add, serves to show not only that the children are not angels but also that they have already received their martyrs" reward.

The most iconographically complex aspect of the painting appears in the globes which rise from the waters of life. As Hunt explained: "The stream is portrayed as ever rolling onward and breaking — where it might if real water be dissipated in vapour — into magnified globes which image the thoughts rife in that age in the minds of pious Jews . . . of the millennium which was to be the mature outcome of the advent of the Messiah." These visionary globes, which contain "promises to the Patriarchs," serve the same function as the typological details of The Triumph of the Innocents: they place the event happening before us within the total context of sacred history, making us aware that it is a center toward which all things move and from which all things flow. Almost all the details in these visionary spheres contain visions or prophecies taken as types. The painter emphasizes the old theological maxim that the promises to the Patriarchs "are progressive as is all the teaching of Revelation," and he therefore begins his explication with the earliest of prophetical types, Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven in Genesis 28:12-17: "the dream at Bethel first clearly speaks of the union of Earth and Heaven. This was the dawn of the exaltation of the Jewish faith, and accordingly the large orb relects dimly the Patriarch asleep with a twofold ladder or pathway up and down, which is traversed by the servants of God." Victorian interpreters commonly took Jacob's ladder as a type of Christ, since, like it, he mediates between heaven and earth — precisely as he is doing in the center of The Triumph of the Innocents: See, for example, Henry Melvill’s sermon, "Jacob's Vision and Vow." Hunt further points out that he combined this "first beautiful dream of the Patriarch with other ideas of the Messiah's reign which harmonise with this, and which were developed later." He therefore includes in this main visionary globe what Watkinson correctly observes to be "an epitome of the creation, fall and salvation: it is Van Eyck's Holy Lamb in miniature" (133). As Panofsky has pointed out, Van Eyck combines the Fountain of Life with an Allerheiligenbild in this section of the Ghent altarpiece

The image of the life-giving fountain, one of the oldest symbols of salvation and fairly ubiquitous in the Old Testament, occurs in Revelation XXI, 6, and VII, 17, the latter versicle immediately following the sections selected for the liturgy of the Feast of All Saints. Here the "fountain" or "fountains" are mentioned only by way of a promise. But they were naturally associated with the "pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb" in Revelation XXII, 1 . . . The fountain had come to be interpreted both as a meeting place of all the faithful and as a kind of boundary mark between the Old Law and the New, the state of nature and the state of grace. Early Netherlandish Painting, I, 216]

Panofsky reminds us, then, that the Ghent altarpiece, of which Hunt included a small portion, may well have been the source of his conception of the waters of life.

In the center of the globe rises the Tree of Life, a standard image of the Cross, while at the right a bowed figure, which Watkinson identifies as a borrowing from Bunyan, is assisted in joining the procession up the heavenly ladder. Below this figure the lion and lamb of Revelation crouch, while at the left of the tree, "the bowed (or literally falling) figure of Woman is both driven out, as from the Garden, and sustained by an Angel" (133). According to Watkinson, "a synthesis of symbolism marries traditional Christian ideas with those of evolution and pantheism" (132), but these evolutionary ideas, one must point out, are Christian commonplaces which received detailed support from typological exegetics. Hunt shared with Tennyson and Browning conceptions of spiritualized evolution transferred from typology, and in The Triumph of the Innocents he employed them in their most orthodox manner.

The emphases of this first globe are reinforced by a second smaller one, which floats in front of Joseph. On the right we observe the sinner, everyman, yearning for salvation, and on the left we find the standard explanation of how that salvation is achieved: a red serpent approaches Christ's heel, recalling the lines from Genesis 3:15 which Milton and countless other typological interpreters of the Bible took to be the first prophecy. God told the serpent, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel." According to the standard reading, Christ shall bruise the head of Satan, forever conquering evil, and in turn he shall be bruised - crucified. This was the text that a would-be Edinburgh patron had requested Hunt to paint in 1864. In this corner of The Triumph of the Innocents he did so almost two decades later.

Hunt's visionary globes are closely related to the Pre-Raphaelite device of the window or mirror which opens up an enclosed space, providing a sight of something the spectator could not otherwise see from his vantage point. In this way they derive from a whole spectrum of similar devices common in Northern art. Whereas Van Eyck's Van der Paele Madonna provides the famous reflections on St. George's armor from a mere delight in visual fact, those on the shield of St. Michael in Juan de Flandes's Saints Michael and Francis mirror an exterior scene supposedly behind the spectator, for on the curved surface of the shield appear the shapes of clouds, sky, and buildings.

Left: St. Michael’s sheild in Juan de Flandes's Saints Michael and Francis. Right: The mirror from The Arnolfini Portrait.

To Hunt, the most relevant such device is the mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait and in its many heirs including Petrus Christus' St. Elgius as a Goldsmith, the Von Werl altarpiece from the shop of Rogier van der Weyden, the Madonna panel of Memlinc's Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove, and Metsys' Banker and His Wife. Hunt knew the Memlinc and probably the Metsys, but the Arnolfini Portrait, which he drew upon in so many works, is certainly his most obvious source.

Hunt was not attracted to the Baroque solution of having the supernatural or visionary figures enter the picture space insulated by billowing clouds, although many contemporaries still found this an acceptable solution to the problem of joining the natural and the supernatural in the same picture. The precise separation of the visionary from the earthly, which Hunt effected with his globes, is more in keeping with his general approach, and he may have drawn upon Hugo van der Goes's Death of the Virgin and the Revelation panel of Memlinc's Triptych of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, both of which he had seen in 1849.

Hans Memlinc. Triptych of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. 1479. Panel, 67 3/4 x 67 3/4 in. (center); 67 3/4 x 31 l/8 in. (each wing). Hospital of St. John, Bruges.

In fact, the Memlinc with its precise separation of St. John and his vision seems a very likely source of Hunt's conceit. Finally, Hunt may also have been drawing upon the two circular visions which appear beneath Christ's arms in Bernart Van Orley's large Crucifixion in Notre Dame, Bruges, which Hunt visited in 1849.

Although Hunt carried this device further than any of his contemporaries, he was not alone in making use of such symbolic globes.

Left: The Sixth Day/span>. Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA (1833-1898). 1870-1876. Medium: watercolor, gouache, shell gold, and platinum paint on linen-covered panel prepared with zinc white ground. Right: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream. 1855. Engraving. 8 5/8 x 10 5/16 in. From The Bible in Pictures (Glasgow, 1869). Bodleian Library. Oxford.

Rossetti proposed a never completed subject to Clarence Fry in 1876 in which a "crystal globe in the lady's hand was to reflect a rocky landscape surrounding her and symbolizing her own pitiless heart" [21 April 1876, Letters, III, 1430-31] Burne-Jones's panels of The Angels of Creation include scriptural scenes within the globes held by the angels, but, unlike Hunt's work, these are entirely visionary, and the globes do not enter earthly space and time. A far more important parallel to Hunt's use of visionary globes appears in Schnorr's Bible illustration Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream, which appeared with an English text in 1855. Whereas Jäger , following Raphael, presented the symbols of dearth and plenty on two circular plaques, Schnorr placed them within globes which hover in a realistic picture space. But there is no evidence that Hunt had seen Schnorr's illustrations, and the German artist's use of this kind of a symbolic globe is perhaps most significant in indicating the parallel development of nineteenth-century artists who tried to combine the natural and the supernatural in an effective manner./

This is the critical problem with Hunt's The Triumph of the Innocents: does it conflate the natural and supernatural, realistic and visionary, in an effective, believable manner? As P. T. Forsyth, a great admirer of the artist, pointed out in 1905,

The difficulty in this picture is, that the painter is trying to raise us to do what, as an artist and seer, he habitually does — to see with two eyes at once, with the bodily eye and with the soul's; to gain one vision of two worlds; to read one system in two spheres . . . Art has no higher function, when she can rise to it without over-strain, than this stereoscopic vision of the two-worlds. [Religion in Recent Art, 178]

The main question for Hunt's contemporaries and for ourselves is: does The Triumph of the Innocents try to do the impossible? F. G. Stephens, who had in 1880 decisively broken with Hunt, charged that such was the case. In criticizing the attempt to include visionary elements in a realistic work, he argued that "the living fountains . . . fail altogether in being mysterious, much less spiritual. They are apparently gelid sheets and curving planes of an unknown ice-like substance," and the airy globes, he felt, succeeded no better. . . Stephens argued that Hunt had adopted a mistaken, self-contradictory method in this

strange mixture of the real and the unreal . . . An attempt to represent the unseen by substantial means and all too faithful methods which are self-contradictory and puzzling to the logical mind, is, so to say, heavily handicapped against itself. In this respect the picture fails completely, not, of course, through any defect of skill, studies, or power on the part of the artist, but simply because he has employed methods which could not succeed. He has endeavoured to represent spiritual essences with substantial appearances, including the varieties of the form, light, shade, and vivid colouring of the life.

Stephens reveals his fundamental disagreement with Hunt when he claims that the artist attempted to mix the "real and `the unreal," for, according to Hunt, he was portraying two aspects or modes of the real. If one cannot accept this "higher realism," then Hunt's basic artistic assumptions, like the beliefs from which they derive, may well seem false, artificial, and even grotesque.

On the other hand, contemporary reviews show that even some critics fundamentally opposed to Hunt's methods found The Triumph of the Innocents compelling despite themselves. The author of "Mr Holman Hunt: His Work and Career" in the 1886 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine was forced to admit that the painter's imagination had captured his own. Beginning with the usual praise of the artist's high-mindedness and painterly ambition, this critic insists that Hunt's basic approach was incorrect: "We honour the artist's aspiration, yet the attempt to render the mind's intangible imaginings palpable to sense, is proved once more beyond the range of pictorial art." But immediately after making this criticism, doubt sets in, and he finds himself admitting, "yet it cannot be said that the striving to pass from the material and the mundane into the realm of the spiritual and the divine fails entirely of reward. The mind somehow is led insensibly along the pathway of miracle. And wonder is awakened." Holman Hunt has adopted a mode impossible of success, but it does seem to work a little, and, in fact, it leads us at last towards miracle and wonder! Hunt, I submit, would have been quite satisfied by the reactions of this reviewer, whom he had forced despite himself to feel precisely what was intended.

Hunt, in fact, succeeded magnificently in creating a new interpretation of the Flight into Egypt which combines the realistic and visionary, the physical and spiritual. In demonstrating that he could base a meditative image upon realistic technique, he also made a picture that was accessible to his Victorian contemporaries. Furthermore, he succeeded in his lifelong attempt to create a truly English religious painting: drawing upon Protestant interpretations of the Bible, Flemish and German iconography, and Greek, Roman, and Renaissance Italian figure types, Hunt produced a painting that was perceived as characteristically English and yet part of the traditions of art.

Created 2001; last modified 29 October 2020