Many artworks exist that contain an image somehow related to the New Testament, even if they are not showing a particular story. The Shadow of Death is one such painting that does not correlate to a story in the New Testament. We can obviously see that the male figure is Jesus Christ, and can see that the woman figure is Mary, his mother. The image is also showing a carpenter shop, which we know from the stories in the New Testament that Joseph, Jesus’ father, was a carpenter. However, we never hear of this scene taking place in the stories, but one thing William Holman Hunt wanted to accomplish with this painting is the humanity of Christ.
William Holman Hunt was born in 1827 in London, and entered the Royal Academy art schools. His earlier works were not very successful, but when he started painting religious images, Hunt became famous. In the mid 1850’s, he traveled to the Holy Land for more detail that he could incorporate into his paintings, which was where he painted The Shadow of Death which took from 1869-1873 to complete. The image was produced by oil paint on a canvas, and is approximately seven feet by five and a half feet. One reason Hunt decided to paint this particular image is because he believed there was a severe lack in pictures representing Christ being fully man. Hunt wanted to show Jesus, as he endured the burden of common labor, “still gaining His bread by the sweat of His face”.
When looking at this image, my gaze immediately went to the shadow in the left of the background. Clearly, the shadow of Jesus’ hands is placed to resemble his crucifixion. I also took notice of the fact that Jesus’ chest is bare in this painting. I have mainly only seen him in this way in artworks that actually portray the crucifixion. However, here we can see from viewing his body, that he is lean, muscular, and tan, not only implying his hard labor, but foreshadowing his death. His facial expression also interested me. In this picture, Jesus is looking up, gazing into heaven perhaps, which to me seems like another foreshadowing of his death. Hunt, however, wanted to show him in this manner to show his relief. The image is meant to be when the sun is starting to go down, so Jesus is finally able to retire from his day’s labor, and so he gets up to stretch and relax.
I also noticed Mary, his mother, was gazing at his shadow as well. Here, we are able to share in her feeling of dread when she receives this image of the things that are to come. Even though I cannot see her face, I can feel her surprise and sadness because of the way she is portrayed. One thing that I didn’t notice was the chest she has opened in front of her. Inside of it are the gifts the Magi brought to Jesus when they came to visit him in Bethlehem. The star shaped window over the right shoulder of Jesus represents the star that led the Magi. In this sense, the story of Jesus’ life is coming full circle, because we remember his infancy, see him as an adult, and get a glimpse of his death.
There are also many other intricate details in this painting that foreshadow the death of Jesus. The first is the red fillet, which is something to wear around one’s head to keep their hair in place, which is at the foot of the sawhorse. This represents the crown of thorns that would be used to mock Jesus during his Passion. The fact that it is red, also symbolizes the red robe the soldiers put on Jesus to mock him, and the blood that he would shed. Another thing is the reeds that are standing in the left corner of the carpentry shop. These represent the reed that the soldiers would shove into Jesus’ hand, like a scepter, to mock him and then they would beat Jesus. This is found in Matthew 27:28-30.
They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head.
Some other interesting things to note are the shadow that the saw casts on the wall. It is meant to resemble a spear, to represent the spear that would be thrust into his side. Another symbol is the plumb bob, a weight used for measuring if something is perpendicular, which is hanging from the rack of tools on the back wall. The shape and location is meant to resemble the heart of Jesus. The window behind Christ’s head is meant to resemble a halo, pointing to his holy nature. The hills outside the window are supposed to represent the hills of Galilee, which points to Jesus’ ministry.
William Holman Hunt took great effort into putting many little details into this image. Overall, I would say this painting reflects on Jesus’ life and death. This image is meant to show the spectator the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us, not only in his death, but in his life. If Jesus is true God and true man, then he took on a great burden when he became human. He had to endure the same trials that all of us face, and I think this work does a great job of showing us just how much Jesus had to love us, if he was willing to endure our sufferings.