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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Holman Hunt, Symbols, "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple"

I have previously written about Holman Hunt and his painting techniques. Hunt painted The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, (oil on canvas) from 1854-1855 and 1856-1860. Hunt was English and was known for helping establish the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood art movement (PRB); artists who “painted scenes of minute detail, inspired by the truth and seriousness of the early Renaissance.” Hunt was known for his detail and elaborate symbolism.

Several of Hunt’s paintings along with other artists of the PRB have been on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. When I saw his painting, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, I noticed that the Hebrew Torah that the Rabbi was holding had a star that was not the Star of David. (Torah, “the collective body of Jewish teaching embodied in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud”.) In searching for information about the 8 point star Hunt had painted on the Torah, I found that this was likely a symbol of Islamic art. The 8 point star painted by Hunt was somewhat skewed in perspective. The star was also on the flag of Morocco. The 8 point star was not unique to Morocco. It appeared in many cultures. It was a symbol of balance and harmony. However by the middle ages, the 8 point star was largely used as a symbol of Islamic art. Why did Hunt in the 1800s put a symbol of Islamic art on the Hebrew Torah?

I then noticed that the Rabbi’s slipper had 3 leafs. Research found that the 3 leaf clover was also a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Author, Albert Boime in his article, William Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat: Rite of Forgiveness/Transference of Blame, (The Art Bulletin 84 no1 94-114 Mr 2002) wrote:

“Hunt perceived Jerusalem's multicultural society as the most "accursed" in the world and regarded the local inhabitants in the light of conventional racist tropes of difference and otherness. His correspondence is shot through with imperialist ideology: "Arabs are the meanest sneaks in the world"; "Niggers here ... are the most bigotted [sic] and the most dirty and the most revered of fanatics"; while "Rabbis live in secret luxury, keeping the poor continually croaking to procure further subscriptions."(FN5) Exulting in the British show of force in the Crimea, he bragged that on the front lines, with his British nationality "and a fist I would undertake to knock down any two Arabs in the Usbeykia and walk away unmolested." While painting the landscape for The Scapegoat, Hunt was confronted by a band of Arab horsemen who demanded water, and he retorted, "I am an Englishman; you are an Arab. Englishmen are not the servants of Arabs; I am employing Arabs for servants."

(I apologize but I decided not to change offending language in the quote so readers would see it as it was written.)

Why did Hunt, a man known for his exact detail and truth to nature, put these symbols on the Hebrew Torah and Rabbi?

[Click on title of this post to find out more about Hunt.]