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Unknown English artist, Central [Oxford and St Albans]

The Harrowing of Hell, from Arundel 157, fol. 11r, c.1220–40, Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum, 295 x 200 mm, The British Library, London, Arundel 157, fol. 11r, © The British Library Board

William Holman Hunt

The Shadow of Death, 1870–73, Oil on canvas, 214.2 x 168.2 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, 1883.21, Manchester Art Gallery, UK / Bridgeman Images

Vincent van Gogh

The Bearers of the Burden (Miner's Wives Carrying Sacks), 1881, Pen in brown and black ink, white and grey opaque watercolour, on [originally] blue laid paper, 47.5 x 60 cm, Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands, KM 122.865 recto, World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Work, Word, and the Cross

Comparative Commentary by

This exhibition’s three artworks can help us to move through the text of Philippians 2:1–11, exploring the nature of Christ’s setting aside of entitlement, his taking on humble human form, his obedience to a shameful death, and the transformation of that death to exaltation and triumph for the whole human race.

All are concerned with the work of Christ and each engages deeply with the reality of labour. Both William Holman Hunt and Vincent van Gogh are concerned to validate and indeed dignify the physical toil of the ‘working man’. Both of them put huge effort into these particular works. Hunt and his models had to endure extreme heat and cold as he painted The Shadow of Death outside Bethlehem, difficulties described by George Landow as ‘themselves … part of the devotional importance of his work’ (1972: 206). Van Gogh is said to have ‘foregrounded rather than disguised the artistic labour required to generate his pictures’ (Walker 1981: 50). Both sought to have the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5) through the labour of painting and, like the incarnate Christ of John 1:14, through inhabiting the context depicted (Hunt in the Holy Land, Van Gogh in Belgian and Dutch mining communities). Moreover, Van Gogh identified strongly with what he took to be Christ’s self-emptying (Philippians 2:7), habitually displaying what has been called ‘a psychological compulsion to self-abasement’ (Stewart 1991: 104).

Work is also a feature of ‘Hand B’ whose personal story is unknown but who would have been part of a religious community for whom the laborare (work) of manuscript illumination was inherently orare (prayer). Furthermore there is a reflection on the work of Christ in the miniature. The Harrowing of Hell scene is one half of a double miniature, itself part of a series of two-scene images in the Psalter that tell the story of Christ. Its other half is ‘The Holy Women at the Tomb’. It is a reminder to those who might think that Jesus was resting in the tomb on Holy Saturday that he was in fact about his work. The Holy Women were just not in a position to see it (Mark 4:26–27).

All three images have a concern with incarnation, the enfleshment of the Word in an artistic material medium. For Hunt, archaeological and ethnographic accuracy in the depiction of the human Jesus is designed to make him more real (Giebelhausen 2006). For Van Gogh, art is about the communication of spiritual truth freed from conventional religious forms and located in the lives of real people. Hand B creates an image to draw the meaning of the Psalms into the history of Jesus.

For each artist the image is inseparable from the Word. Hunt was in the habit of inscribing the frames of his religious paintings with a biblical text, a practice that has been identified as ‘explanatory rhetoric’ (Rowe 2005), usually eschewing further explanation and offering the inscription as an open hermeneutic invitation. Van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother, probably intended for wider readership, describing the envisioning and execution of his pictures and his response to the finished products. These act as a kind of apologia, and often enhance the experience of looking at the image in question. The nature of Hand B’s undertaking is both literally and figuratively to shed light on the sacred text. The verbal word and material word are thus interconnected in these works.

Above all, these three images engage with the cross. This goes without saying in The Shadow of Death, but the crucifix is also prominent in The Bearers of the Burden where its lightness (which the darkness cannot overcome; John 1:5) contrasts so markedly with the gloom of the women’s surroundings.

Yet it is in the Harrowing of Hell that the cross has the most central place, dividing the composition in two, just as it does in the Philippians hymn. Here we see that it is the cross of Christ’s staff that beats down Satan and the powers of darkness; the cross that offers human beings comfort (Psalm 23:4) and healing (John 12:32).

The cross is the pivot of the work of salvation. This is why the degradation and victory of the cross are held together by ‘therefore’ rather than split by ‘but’ in verse 9. The cross is at once the culmination of Christ’s coming humbly to dwell in solidarity with his people in their powerlessness and suffering; the natural consequence of his humble life of radically subversive goodness; and the means by which he raises up humanity with him to the heavenly places.

 

References

Coombs, James H., et al. 1986. A Pre-Raphaelite Friendship: The Correspondence of William Holman Hunt and John Lucas Tupper (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press)

Giebelhausen, Michaela. 2006. Painting the Bible: Representation and Belief in Mid-Victorian Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate)

Landow, George. 1972. ‘William Holman Hunt’s “The Shadow of Death”’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 55.1: 197–239

Pritchard, Ronald E. 1971. D.H. Lawrence: Body of Darkness (London: Hutchinson)

Rowe, Karen D. 2005. ‘Painted Sermons: Explanatory Rhetoric and William Holman Hunt’s Inscribed Frames’ (PhD diss., Bowling Green State University)

Stewart, Jack. 1991. ‘Primordial Affinities: Lawrence, Van Gogh and the Miners’, Mosaic, 24.1: 93–113

Walker, John. 1981. Van Gogh Studies: Five Critical Essays (London: Jaw)