A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids. 1850. Oil on canvas, 111 x 141 cm. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, the University of Oxford. WA1894.1. Bequeathed by Thomas Combe, 1893. This image can be used for non-commercial research or private study purposes under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Click on image to enlarge it.
Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids raises questions which must be answered if we are to understand the development of Hunt's conception of an integrated pictorial symbolism. First, how could Hunt, who placed such importance upon his own sincerity, paint a picture that employed typological symbolism at a time he didi not believe in Christianity? He tells us that he felt obliged to put away Christ and the Two Maries because he did not believe in his subject. How, one wonders, could he take up a subject not long afterwards that also seems to require equal commitment? Was he acting insincerely, or was there something about the way he employed this mode of symbolism which allowed him to paint a "sincere" picture?
Second, if Hunt drew upon Ruskinian and other sources of inspiration to paint a picture with prefigurative symbolism in 1849-50, why did he wait until his visit to the Middle East to return to this kind of solution to his iconographic problems? To answer this second question, we must determine if there was an essential difference between Hunt's employment of typological symbolism and his more Hogarthian iconography in the works painted during the years from 1851 to 1853, and we must also determine if there was anything about his sojourn in the Middle East which made typology seem a viable and even necessary artistic solution.
The answer to the first question lies in a careful examination of the typological iconography of the Druids picture, for such an examination will show that Hunt did in fact employ it differently from his later, more explicitly typological paintings. A comparison of Hunt's work with Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents makes this point clearly.
John Everett Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents. 1849-50. Oil on canvas, 34 x 55 inches; 864 x 1397 mm. Tate Britain, London. N03584.
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
Millais, who was untroubled by Hunt's problems of religious belief, painted a meditative image drawn from a conjectured event in the life of Christ. In Millais's work the young Saviour holds up his wounded hand, providing a clear prefiguration of the wounds he will later receive on the Cross. A drop of blood has fallen upon his foot, echoing the same prefiguration, while the tools on the wall behind him foreshadow the instruments of the Passion as they will later do in Hunt's The Shadow of Death.
Much in the manner of James Collinson's poem on the child Jesus, Millais has imagined a type occuring within the life of Christ which looks forward to the culmination of his earthly career in suffering and death. Through the door of the carpenter's shop we glimpse the sheep, images of all men, whom Christ has come to save. The image of the sheep, which Hunt later employed several times, is not strictly a typological image, but the many scriptural mentions of this animal, particularly those in Isaiah, were taken as part of clear prophecies of a coming Messiah. Grieve, who sets the painting within the context of contemporary Tractarian and Ecclesiologist controversies, argues that the position of these sheep recalls Tractarian demands that "the laity should be separated from the clergy and that some religious knowledge should be withheld". He further interprets the rear wall of the carpenter's shop as a "roodscreen and the room itself as the sancturary with the table occupying the place of the altar" ("Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Anglican High Church," 294). This reading of the picture in terms of contemporary Church politics is convincing, and one should probably take this interpretation even further, pointing out that such visual puns on the altar are common in Northern painting, and that, in keeping with High Church emphasis on the sacrament of Communion, Millais has provided us with a type, not only of the Crucifixion, but also of the eternally recurring mass. The typological actions which he has depicted demand that the spectator perceive how all portions of Christ's life point towards that crucial event in human history, the Crucifixion. The very nature of the subject requires that unless we assume that the painter is making use of a grotesque, frivolous conceit, we must recognize its full symbolic implications.
In contrast, A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids does not require that one appreciate its typological symbolism to perceive its main intent, and here it differs markedly from Hunt's later typological works. Hunt's long description of his work, which he wrote for Thomas Combe in 1850 or 1851 ("Some remarks on the subject of the picture entitled 'A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids") explains his general purpose and some of the details of his iconography. First, he characteristically begins by justifying the archeological accuracy of his subject. To those who had objected that such an event could not have taken place, since Tiberius had destroyed the Druids before the appearance of Christianity in England, Hunt responds with a statement by Tertullian "that even in those places in Britain hitherto inaccessible to the Roman Arms [pagans] have been subdued by the Gospel of Christ" (Ashmolean MS). In addition to also defending his choice of ethnic type, he argues against critics who claimed that vines did not grow in Britain at this period by pointing out that the cultivation of grapes could easily have been introduced from across the Channel, that "but a few centuries later . . . references were made to Vineyards," that "illuminated Manuscripts [exist] showing the cultivation of the grape," and that "the original name of the city Winchester . . . signifies wine camp". Unlike Millais, Hunt thus pays considerable attention, as he was always to do, to an imaginative reconstruction of past events. Such an approach was of course quite in keeping with his later use of typological symbolism, so it is not here that any difference between this and his later works will be found.
Hunt inscribed scriptural texts upon the frame of his picture to guide the spectator to a proper understanding of the subject — a technique he learned from both Hogarth and popular illustrations of the Bible. At the top of the frame he placed a text from John 16:2: "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think he doeth God service," words originally spoken to the disciples to warn them of their fate at the hands of the hostile Jews but here applying to the pursuing Druids whom we see outside the hut. A similar analogy between the original disciples and these early missionaries is conveyed by the words of Romans 3:15: "Their feet are swift to shed blood". The third text, which is from Mark 9:41, bears upon the sheltering family within the fisherman" s shanty: "For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward." The fourth inscription — "I was a stranger and ye took me in" (Matthew 25:38) — echoes the first but also makes an equivalence between Christ himself and the missionary who brings his word. According to Hunt's own commentary, the actions taking place are "a fulfilment of the texts quoted with the picture, and others in which the persecutions to which the disciples were subjected are prefigured". The two Christian priests, he explains, have gone to the Druid temple "to make known the Lord publicly, "to heal the broken, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord"". The results are as one might expect: the Druids incite their followers to attack the missionaries, one of whom has escaped to a nearby fisherman's hut and the protection there of those he has converted. The other priest has fallen into the hands of the Druids, and "this servant of the Lord shall no more walk the earth to give strength to the weak, and to raise them that have stumbled. God has made ready his crown of martyrdom."
Within the fisherman's shed the painting's main action takes place; the rescued priest, who has come close to martyrdom, is succored by his flock. The equivalence of Christ and those who die for his word, which the juxtaposed incriptions on the frame suggest, is presented in visual form, for the missionary slumps in his chair in a pose that recalls a Deposition, a resemblance that is reinforced by the bright red cross on the wall behind him. (I am grateful to Dr. Howard M. Helsinger for suggesting this line of thought to me.) Other details that derive from the theme of the Deposition appear in the fact that one of the converts "is bathing his face with a sponge and water," while "the stooping girl is removing a thorn which has clung to his dress," which is conceivably an allusion to the Crown of Thorns. although this servant of Christ has not met with martyrdom, he has suffered for his master, and when one takes the two priests together they clearly serve as an imitatio Christi and as fulfilments of his prophecies. In typological terms, the priests are the antitypes or fulfilments of types provided by the first disciples. Hunt's use of an apparently prefigurative pose is something he might have learned from Northern painting in which the Christ child is sometimes represented sleeping in the pose of the Deposition (Panofsky I, 261).
Sketch for Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids. Source: Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1, 174.
The picture's other iconographic details do not function typologically, for they refer in more general terms to the civilizing effects of Christianity upon a barbarous people, something which could be justified in purely historical terms. Hunt explained to Combe that "it was my intention . . . to exhibit the civilizing effects of the divine religion which the Missionaries had taught to the occupiers of the hut" by introducing the corn and vines as examples of how they had already changed British life. He also adds that "there is a net hanging at the corner of the shed which I have introduced as being suggestive of Christianity from two causes, first as being a figure under which the Christian Church is typified in the Scriptures and again from the fact that the Druids held fish to be sacred and forbade the catching of them". To this one may add that it is appropriate for missionaries, fishers of men, to be rescued by those who are literally fishermen.
Some answers to our first question should now be apparent. First of all, although the main action of this painting centers on an effectively presented example of typological symbolism, that symbolism does not function as an iconographic center as do his later central types: A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids does not use one type reinforced by a number of others to generate sacred space and time. In Hunt's later typological works some of these distinctions become readily apparent, but the symbolism in this picture does not make us feel that we are at one of the centers of human history, watching some central event towards which all converges. Hunt had begun this painting for the competition for the Royal Academy Gold Medal, the theme for 1849 being an "Act of Mercy". When he realized that enlarging the canvas to include the landscape on the right meant having a work too large to enter the competition, he abandoned the idea of competing for the medal. Nonetheless, the painting still treats mercy as an example of the civilizing effects of Christianity. The typological symbolism works fairly effectively, but it cannot unify the disparate elements of the picture's intention, and the painting remains divided between a pictorial essay on the way Christ's servants in all ages suffer and the way Christianity civilized Britain. Part of Hunt's divided intention arose in the fact that he did not center his work upon Christ himself — as had Millais — and this, I would argue, was because as a non-believer he was not attracted to such a theme. Such lack of Christian belief also makes it highly unlikely that Hunt might, Grieve has suggested, have made his Druids picture a work of Tractarian propaganda. In fact, there is little in this painting which requires Hunt to have believed in Christianity to have painted it. Even the elaborate use of scriptural texts on the frame merely prepares us for the incontrovertible historical fact that missionaries who brought civilization to barbarous peoples often suffered severe persecution, and this is the kind of persecution about which Christ had warned the first disciples.
Hunt had been able to discover prefigurative images which he could accept intellectually, and there was no problem of faith involved. Such a symbolic mode might prove occasionally attractive, but at this point in his career it did not have the major attraction, almost the inevitability, that it did after he became a believer. Hunt therefore continued to experiment with Hogarthian forms of symbolism, but it was not until he himself believed in a "divine religion" that he could use typology to paint like a "sublime Hogarth," like one, that is, whose integrated symbolism had an intrinsic sublimity and truth.
The answer to the second question would seem to follow rather directly from the first. Hunt' s experience of the Middle East convinced him that typology was an effective way of conveying detailed visual facts about the Holy Land in conjunction with deeper spiritual meanings. According to the painter himself, his experience of religious conversion is recorded by The Light of the World and he depicted the effects of Christ's grace upon an individual human life in its companion picture, The Awakening Conscience. Leaving these works to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, he set out on a voyage of exploration to the Middle East where, as his letters and diaries attest, he found his beliefs powerfully reinforced. He found the places where Christ lived and died a source of intense religious emotion, and he wanted to record these landscapes — and experiences — for others, so they could share his feelings. Landscape, costume, physiognomic types, and other such matters of fact now had a vital importance for Hunt and his art.
Left: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. Right: The Scapegoat.
He also had occasion to draw, once again, upon the capacities of typology to produce an integrated symbolism, but now, when he began The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple and The Scapegoat typology was at the center of his vision of the world. It was no longer a mere intellectual and artistic exercise. For once he became a devout Christian, typology became the natural mode of communicating what he believed important in life and art. It was not only an Evangelical way of conveying belief, but it was also an obvious means of combining detailed visual realism with complex iconography: its emphasis upon the essential reality of both signifier and signified, type and antitype, answered to Holman Hunt's deepest spiritual and artistic needs — which had now become one and the same.
Created 7 February 2005
7 January 2022