Sacred Realism: William Holman Hunt’s “Finding of the Saviour in the Temple”

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Note: This article is part of a continuing series on Catholicism and art.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was an English artist who created realistic, richly detailed and symbolic renderings of sacred scenes.  He was a founding member of the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which advocated returning to the observation of nature and looking back to the past for inspiration — to the era of Raphael (1483-1520) and earlier.  I had the chance to see Hunt’s splendid painting The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple in person when it was shown as part of an exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite artists at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few years ago.  With its brilliant burst of color it makes perfect viewing in these high days of summer. (Right-click on the picture to enlarge.)

Hunt painted The Finding of the Saviour while sojourning in the Holy Land in 1855-60.  He had traveled there to seek out the authentic topography, scenery, clothing, and human faces that would help him create realistic biblical paintings.  In his own words, he aimed to “use my powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching.” Hunt’s words suggest an evangelizing purpose to his art.  Yet the method, typical of his age, was scientific observation — art as anthropology, if you will.  While European artists of an earlier era often made Jesus and the saints look Italian or German, Hunt gives them unapologetically Semitic looks and Middle Eastern surroundings.  In this painting, Hunt’s re-creation extends also to the architecture, as he painstakingly re-imagines a magnificent gold-paneled portico in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Hunt’s recreated world is full of color and pageantry, a bit like a Technicolor biblical film of the 1950s.  His temple is just as splendid as one it imagines it from the account of its construction in the First Book of Kings.  Using his mind’s eye, Hunt conjures the world of instantiated, incarnate reality that formed the background to the story of Christ.

The painting presents us with two distinct spaces: the outside and the inside of the temple, with the figures of the Holy Family dividing the two spaces.  Outside, a blind mendicant sits while laborers work on part of the temple.  Both are symbolic: the mendicant stands for a humanity awaiting its Messiah; a temple still in progress signifies that God is working something new in Christ, fulfilling the old Law and thus completing the “temple” of revelation.  A flock of doves flies in, reminding us that the Holy Spirit rests upon Jesus and his mission.

Inside the portico sit the chief rabbis and their attendants.  The rabbis are individually characterized in their attitudes to the young Christ.  The elderly, blind rabbi is resistant to the new message: he sits clutching at the scrolls of the Torah, devoted to the old-time religion.  The rabbi next to him consoles and steadies him, holding a phylactery (a leather box containing text from the Torah, worn by Jewish men during temple service).  The third, younger rabbi seems most receptive in his attitude to Jesus: he stares prophetically ahead, holding a scroll of scripture open.

Hunt has captured the moment when Mary and Joseph are finally reunited with Jesus after searching for him for three days.  As we recall from Luke 2:41-52, Jesus’ parents lost track of him among the travel party returning home from the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover.  They eventually found him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  Mary said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And Jesus answered, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a triangular arrangement, the Holy Family forms the focal point of the composition.  We see Mary’s relief and St. Joseph’s gentle reproach mixed with awe at the mystery of this divine Son.

This Jesus, with his flaming red hair and dazzling striped tunic, is quite unlike any previous Jesus in western painting.  Standing confidently in a classical pose known as contrapposto (counter-pose), he embodies youthful vigor, seriousness of purpose, and passion; he is ready to set the earth on fire.  His stance recalls his illustrious ancestor, young David, before he strode in to slay Goliath.

William Holman Hunt was not a Catholic, but the artistic movement he was a part of had strong points of contact with contemporary neo-Catholic tendencies in England.  This was the era of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from the Church of England who — inspired by the “high church” Oxford Movement — had desired to restore older Catholic faith traditions to Anglicanism.  The Pre-Raphaelites, for their part, felt disenchanted with the pragmatic and industrializing Victorian age they lived in and looked fondly upon the “pure” and “simple” world of the Middle Ages.  This, as well as the world of the Bible, they sought to recreate in their art.

All this romanticizing of the past had its limitations.  Some Pre-Raphaelite art could be maudlin; and the artists’ high religious ideals were often contradicted by their personal lives, which were known for scandal and decadence.  Still, the Brotherhood had started a cultural trend that would bear much fruit: a reappraisal of the pre-Renaissance world, a questioning of the narrative of “progress.” At their best they created monuments of beauty which — particularly in our age of nihilistic anti-art — continue to speak to us.


William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World” (1853)


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