Four Paintings, One Artist: Holman Hunt at Manchester Art Gallery

The Manchester Art Gallery contains treasures old and new. In its collections are some pictures by Victorian painter William Holman Hunt (d. 1910). As a Pre-Raphaelite, his pictures are vivid, life-life and detailed. He had a particular interest in themes pertaining to Christ.

The Light of the World (c1855) must be one of the most famous paintings in the world. Manchester’s is one of three he produced, each slightly different. It is based upon the text from Revelation 3:20: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I shall come into him and sup with him and he with me’.

Much of the painting was done at night so he might capture the essence of the darkness, which contrasts so beautifully with the light from Christ’s halo, His lantern and the early dawn. Notice the door upon which He knocks, which represents the human heart; is choked by weeds and clutter. The Light of the World waits patiently at the entrance to the darkened human heart that He might gain admittance. What grace is this!

The Shadow of Death he painted nearly twenty years later and was criticised by contemporaries by daring to show Jesus as a working-class man. Nevertheless, this workshop scene highlights both His divinity and humanity. The open window doubles as His halo, reminding the viewer of His supernatural nature. The shadow of His form against the back wall is a reminder of His approaching death upon a cross, that sinners might be brought back to God.

The Scapegoat (1856) is a depiction of a goat that has been released into the wilderness to die. It is described in Leviticus 16. The goat symbolically carried Israel’s sin far away, dying in the desert. This was a pointer to the Messiah who would be cut off from His people and be executed outside of the walls. This smaller painting is inferior to Hunt’s larger version which hands at the Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight, although its colours are more vivid.

The final picture is called The Hireling Shepherd (1851). Initially, it shows a pleasant enough pastoral scene. On closer examination, it is clear that the shepherd is more interested in impressing his female companion with a moth he’s found than looking after sheep. It is clearly an excuse to put an amorous arm around her. The moth is a deaths-head hawkmoth, a portent of dying sheep and a ruined girl. While neglecting his duties, the sheep are wandering off into other fields and into the wheat. Others lay down bloated, in need of help that is unlikely to come. The painting’s title refers to a comment Jesus makes in John 10, in which He, the Good Shepherd, warns against the hireling, ‘who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.’ In other words, false religious teachers and leaders who claim to offer truth and care, but are really more interested in other things.

Four paintings by Hunt at Manchester Art Gallery: three are about Christ and one is certainly not Christ. The message of the paintings is this:

Christ lived as a man that He might die on a cross.

He bore the penalty of your sin, cut off from His people.

He now comes a knocking on your life’s door- will you open to Him, or keep Him shut out?

There may be other shepherds out there, but none of them care for you as He does.