From the practice of reading the Bible in terms of types and shadows of Christ came several important associated habits of mind - all of which left their impress upon the paintings of William Holman Hunt. First, scripture readers learned to delight in complex unravellings of biblical history. Next, they learned to cultivate a love of paradox and enigma, something which appears in the writings of the various nineteenth-century sages, including Emerson, Thoreau, Carlyle, and Ruskin, all of whom were rooted in the fundamentalist tradition - however far they eventually moved from it. Third, worshippers became indoctrinated with the notion that every fact, every event, bears some meaning if we can only penetrate to it. Everything, in other words, can be an emblem if we can learn to see properly. Fourth, the student of scripture perceived that all things existed simultaneously in two realms, the physical and the spiritual. Fifth, delighting in elaborate exegesis of scriptural events, readers of the Bible frequently carried typological interpretation to such extremes that they unknowingly verged into allegory - something particularly ironic in the light of the deep evangelical distrust of such interpretation, smacking as it did of a despised and dangerous tradition.
The essential appeal and the essential feature of typological readings was that it stressed the reality of both the signifier and the signified: one did not sacrifice anything in the Bible by realizing that it had a Christological import. Indeed, the direct result of typology was a habit of mind that emphasized meditation on all the details of scripture, since all were real and all were important and meaningful. This habit, in turn, led to the practice of "reading" events, things, and people as elaborate emblems - a practice most apparent, for example, in the writings of Carlyle and Ruskin. What frequently gives their writings such force is this practice of pointing to the unexpected as emblem. What Ruskin and Carlyle tried to do, of course, was make their readers see more deeply, more perceptively, more imaginatively. This emblem tradition had some of its strangest consequences in the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1856) where Ruskin allegorized the laws of geology, and found in each of the main kinds of rock, not an analogy, but a divinely intended emblem of human political relations. Clearly, Ruskin wanted man to walk about his earth meditating upon what he called "Nature-scripture." Hunt's diaries reveal similar habits of mind. Writing of the Dead Sea, he discovered it to be an emblem of sin, which is beautiful at first glance but poisonous and deadly upon contact:
The Sea is heaven's own blue, like a diamond more lovely in a king's diadem than in the mines of the Indies, but as it gushes up through the broken ice-like salt on the beach, it is black, full of asphalt scum - and in the hand slimy, and smarting as a sting. No one can stand and say it is not accursed of God. If in all [things] there are sensible figures of men's secret deeds and thoughts, then this is the horrible figure of sin . . . earth joys at hand but Hell gaping behind, a stealthy, terrible enemy for ever (Ryl. Eng. MS. 1210).
This diary entry clearly indicates how Hunt intended the spectator to interpret his Dead Sea landscape in The Scapegoat. Not all the painter's meditative emblems, of course, were so grim. When he came to "the blessed Sea of Galilee shadowless as a vision", he perceived it both as a foretaste of paradise and as evidence of divine promise to the righteous: "In the rainbow tints of the hills with the azure sky above, the clear, glassy sea looks . . . like an opening in the earth with Heaven showing through, or set there like a precious sapphire, a precious gift, an espousal gem to confirm a bridal of some more righteous age" 29 April 1855 (Ryl. Eng. MS. 1211). In Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt writes similarly of the spring of Capernaum: "There was no room for disappointment in looking into its bubbling waters, which were clear as crystal, engemming the pebbles which flickered below, and harbouring shoals of sheeny fish, while around grew beautiful flowers and luscious fruit. It was a worthy emblem of the spiritual spring of life, which had its source in this region" (II, 50).
The habits of mind produced by thus interpreting landscape and the Bible created a painting in which every detail was potentially meaningful. In each of his major typological works Hunt expected the viewer to concentrate upon all the details of the painting, gradually coming to perceive its meaning by what was essentially a process of meditation. This desire to create an art that requires and prompts a meditative response does much to explain another attraction that this form of symbolism held for him: since he wished to make the spectator carefully consider the smallest points of interest in his canvases, he could lavish great care upon each one. Typology, in other words, justified a detailed realism. Hunt was always worried that a realistic style would create an art that was materialistic, empty, literal, and dead, an art that would destroy imagination in artist and audience alike. Throughout his career he sought ways to vivify realism, and typological symbolism lay at the heart of his search. One effect of such symbolism was to justify the details which characterize realism, and an equally important function of this symbolism was to unify those details.
Thus, for Hunt typology was a solution to what many contemporaries argued was the most prominent problem of Pre-Raphaelite painting - its tendency to divide the canvas into ununified, discrete sections. The anonymous author of a sympathetic discussion of Pre-Raphaelitism in the 1859 Fraser's Magazine, pointed to the problems of Pre-Raphaelite style, specifically in landscape, when writing about Brett's Val d'Aosta and Seddon's Jerusalem. When taken together, he wrote, "all these exquisitely beautiful bits do not make up so exquisitely beautiful a whole as one might expect". Such is not the effect of nature, the author continued, and this difference from nature "is emphatically the fault of the Pre-Raphaelites — a tendency to look upon a subject rather as an aggregation of ideas, than as one idea which may be divided into several, as a conglomerate (if we may borrow an illustration from geology) rather than as a homogeneous mass" ("The Exhibitions of 1859," Fraser's Magazine, 59 (1859), 666-67). Curiously, the writer, whoever he was, not only makes use of an analogy from Ruskin's beloved geology but also seems to use the term "idea" in the sense that Ruskin had employed it in the first volume of Modern Painters - that is, not solely to refer to thoughts and conceptions which provide the theme of a painting, but rather also to indicate sense data of all sorts: color, form, light, and so on (Works, 3.91-92).
Ruskin, following Locke, had offered a far broader description of the goals and capacities of painting than most of his readers have realized, for as he himself stressed, such a definition of painting in terms of ideas permits abstract as well as representational art, aesthetic as well as didactic. It is worth making this point at such length, because the Fraser's critic saw the distinct, characterizing quality of Pre-Raphaelitism to be its rendering of subjects in terms of "an aggregation of ideas". As he explains, "in the subjects they ordinarily paint it shows itself in an elaboration of the expression given to minor passions, feelings, and incidents", the result of which is that the central incident or import of the work is greatly weakened in effect. Such criticisms had been leveled at the Brotherhood and its associates since the beginning of the movement, though they usually took the form that Pre-Raphaelite style inevitably produced a patchy set of discrete visual units which automatically precluded any sort of higher, pleasing unity.
What is particularly interesting about this sympathetic criticism of Pre-Raphaelite realism in Fraser's is that, writing as Hunt neared the completion of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, its author stated his hope that this painting, of which he expected so much, would provide a solution to the problems inherent in the style. "We may look with especial interest to the appearance of Mr. Holman Hunt's long-promised picture of Christ in the Temple", for if it is as great as Hunt's admirers say, "we may venture to predict that it will be found that he has departed from the usual method of his school, either by a less elaborate expression of the non-essential parts of his design, or, what is more likely, by raising his chief purpose above all competition with them" ("The Exhibitions of 1859", 667). Hunt, of course, did attempt to make everything in his painting subservient to the main action, but if one takes his employment of typological symbolism as his "chief purpose", then this critic described his method with double accuracy.
In order to understand how Hunt could base a theory of art upon this kind of apparently arcane symbolism, one must realize how thoroughly his religious beliefs came to permeate his life and work after the early 1850s. These beliefs, which are best described as an intensely personal mixture of evangelical and Broad Church protestantism, ot only led him to use his painting as a moral and spiritual exercise but were also responsible for his conception of a sacred realism, capable of combining scientific detachment and intense emotion, and for his fascination with subjects of conversion and illumination.
Last modified December 2001