This week my pearl among women and I spent a couple of days in Manchester. We visited the Manchester Art Gallery. We saw many wonderful paintings there but the one which most caught my attention was Holman Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’. (I bought a postcard of it to frame for my office). I love its vivid colours and mixture of realism and symbolism.
The painting depicts Jesus as a young carpenter joyfully stretching his arms after a day of physical work. Hunt said that Jesus:
‘has been hard at work all the day, and the setting sun tells Him the hour for cessation from toil has arrived, that his day’s labour is over. He has just risen from the plank on which He has been working, and is portrayed as throwing up His arms to realise that pleasant sensation of repose and relaxation . . . and in perfect harmony with this physical act, so natural and grateful to every one, the Divine Labourer pours forth His soul in fervent gratitude to His Father that the welcome hour of rest has come.’
Mary, who has been kneeling on the floor rummaging through a box containing the gifts from the Wise Men turns to see Jesus’ shadow on the wall. She is shocked to see that the shadow arms fall on a tool rack on the wall in a way that prefigures the crucifixion.
While Jesus is depicted as a real, living young man surrounded by wood shavings and the tools of his trade he is also surrounded by symbols related to his divine mission (and ironically, the tools by which he will be killed).
At the top of the picture, a star shaped window recalls the star of Bethlehem. This, together with the gifts of the Wise Men in the large chest that Mary has opened, reminds us that the Nativity, while joyful, is also linked with prophecies of death and suffering. Through the window on the right we see an olive tree symbolising the suffering in Gethsemane.
Holman Hunt also plays with the symbology of conventional representations of the Saviour. Jesus’ rolled down clothing calls to mind the crucifixion loin cloth of many traditional depictions of the crucifixion. Above Jesus’ head the arch of a window creates the illusion of a halo. In the shadow on the wall, a lead weight (a carpenter’s plumb bob) is positioned so that it hangs where the heart would be and recalls the ‘sacred heart’ of many religious images. In the bottom right hand corner, a red headpiece reminds us of the crown of thorns.
The window sill at the back of the room appears to hold a scroll (perhaps scriptures prophesying of the Messiah) and two pomegranates. Pomegranates are important Jewish symbols connected with the temple as they were depicted on the hems of the High Priests robes and in temple decorations. Pomegranates also represented righteousness as the Jews believed that they had 613 seeds – the number of commandments in Jewish law.
I think that the painting is a brilliant exposition of the way that Christ’s mission was foreshadowed throughout history and also brings together in one image his divine and human nature.
If you are ever in Manchester take a few minutes to visit the Pre-Raphaelite gallery at the Art Gallery to see this wonderful picture. As a bonus, Holman Hunt’s famous Light of Christ is also exhibited in the same gallery.