We can’t take you on any tours right now, so instead Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks is continuing his controversial campaign of opening up Manchester history to as many people as possible by offering this virtual tour, discussing, dissecting and deducing in detail one fo the greatest paintings in Manchester Art Gallery, “The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt (1870-73).
Holman Hunt, the great Pre-Raphaelite artist, one of the movement’s founding members in 1848, did not have an auspicious time in Manchester. At the opening ceremony for the Art Gallery in 1882 he wandered over to the top table to find out where he would be sitting and watched in horror as the Mayor picked up Hunt’s place card and asked his consort, “Who or what is a holman hunt?”
Well, WHH has had the last word, for the Gallery features a number of his choice works. Of these “The Shadow of Death” is the most spectacular. It features a mature Jesus stretching after a hard day’s work as a carpenter and forming a shadow on the back wall of his workshop. To the left of Jesus the Virgin Mary has her back to us. But the shadow Jesus forms on the back wall which Mary gazes at is the shadow of death – it is a pose that he will recreate when he is crucified, clearly soon to come given the depiction of his age in the painting.
The title has obvious origin: Psalm 23: 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” To us the idea of Jesus as a carpenter, the epitome of dignified labour, is not controversial. Many Victorians were horrified at how far this was removed from the traditional holy depiction of Christ. They objected to the veins, muscles and sinews on Jesus’s legs. Earlier, Charles Dickens had castigated Pre-Raphaelite John Millais for his version of Jesus in his “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1850). Detractors were united in their condemnation of a working, labouring, quotidian Jesus in both paintings. But Hunt was also paying tribute to the then fashionable notions of muscular Christianity (Ford Madox Brown did the same in “Work”, the gallery’s greatest painting) that posited religion with manly pursuits such as the fashionable new sports of football and rugby.
As for Mary; why does she have her back to us? One interpretation is that she is partaking of the fashionable Victorian pastime of thrift. She is checking to see that the gifts from the Magi haven’t been stolen. A more mundane explanation is that Hunt found the model he used for Mary in the Holy Land, Miriam El Megnoona, or “Miriam, the crazy one”, an old Bethlehemite, to be too ugly. This might explain why in April 1913 the Suffragettes chose to attack this painting when they raided Manchester Art Gallery after the jailing of Emmeline Pankhurst for allegedly blowing up David Lloyd George’s new house.
How ambitious it was for Hunt to travel the immense distance from London to Jerusalem so that he could create accurate depictions of the holy landscape. This was in keeping with the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideas about realism. In Jerusalem he initially had problems hiring Jewish models. They pointed out the strictures of the 2nd Commandment regarding graven images. However he did find Ezaak, a local Jew, to pose as Jesus even though, pace realism this Jesus is too white, too English. After a few days’ modelling Ezaak failed to turn up. Where was he? Hunt made some enquiries and discovered that Ezaak had been arrested for murder! It turned out he’d been framed. The locals were so annoyed with this Englishman coming amongst them with his demands and wearing the clothes of an English gentleman they decided to teach him a (brief) lesson. Ezaak was released.
Now let us examine the various features in the painting, from left to right; from top to bottom. On the back wall the chisels, hammers and nails, the tools of his trade, but also the very tools that are going to be used to nail him to the Cross. To the right the frame of his head in the arch of the house forms a halo. Further right, a rare realistic representation of the Palestinian landscape. That is why Hunt made the tricky lengthy journey.
Below, the crux (sic) of the painting: a scroll and two fruits. As this is a Christian, not Jewish, work the scroll might well be turned to Isaiah 53:4 foretelling the coming of Christ: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” The fruits are a passion fruit and a pomegranate. The inclusion of the passion fruit is obvious (okay, the Passion of Christ). The pomegranate is vital. In Greek mythology, the pomegranate represents life and regeneration. Pedanius Dioscorides, the 1st century Greek physician, wrote how, and I translate from the Greek, “All sorts of pommegranats are of a pleasant taste and good for ye stomach . . . The juice of the kernells prest out, being sod and mixed with Hony, are good for the ulcers that are in ye mouth and in ye Genitalls and in the seate…” The pomegranate is a most important Biblical fruit. It, not the apple, was the fruit that Eve used to tempt Adam. The pomegranate has 613 seeds, and 613 is the number of commandments in the Old Testament that Jews much keep. In the Song of Solomon the king notes how “Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks. The Pre-Raphaelites didn’t do things half-measure. Look at the wood shavings on the floor; more real than real. Hunt didn’t have to go those lengths but he couldn’t help himself.
Diarist Francis Kilvert described a visit to see the painting in his entry for 27 June 1874:
“I regret to say that against good advice and wise warning I went to see Holman Hunt’s picture of the Shadow of Death. It was a waste of a good shilling. I thought the picture theatrical and detestable and wished I had never seen it.”