Monday, January 22, 2007

The Triumph of the Innocents

William Holman Hunt (2 April 1827 – 7 September 1910)
The Triumph of the Innocents. 1883-84.
Oil on canvas, 61 1/2 x 100 in.

Hunt is most famous for his religious work, The Light of the World, painted 1851-53.

His other religious paintings are also well known: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple; Christ and the Two Marys ; The Scapegoat; The Shadow of Death; Melchizedek.

Here, 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. Perhaps the subject is pertinent in view of it being the anniversary of Roe v Wade. Perhaps it is also apposite in view of the recent discussions about the existence or otherwise of Limbo. What does happen to the souls of the aborted ?

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, now he sets forth the martyr's reward.

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.

Hunt explained the picture as follows:

`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], ). 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" .

William Holman Hunt in the "History of Art" — a paper by Albert Boime published originally in The Art Bulletin 84 no1 94-114 Mr 2002.