Manchester Art Gallery

The Shadow of Death

Object description

Public: The picture shows a carpenter's workshop. A youthful Christ, depicted as muscular and tanned, stands facing the front and stretching, with eyes gazing towards the sky. He is stripped to the waist with a white garment tied round his waist. The scene is bathed in the light of a late afternoon sun. Mary is to his left. She kneels on the floor of the workshop, She is opening a large chest filled with the gifts of the Magi, her head turned towards the back wall where the shadow of Christ is cast as a premonition of the Crucifixion. An array of tools in a wooden bracket mounted on the wall refer to the shape of the Cross. The workshop is filled with carpentry tools and other objects, most of which carry some symbolic significance or or allude to a more complex narrative. A pair of arched windows behind the figure of Christ reveal an extensive landscape, with a fig tree appearing through the right window (an allusion to St Luke, 22:29-31); above the windows and located between them in the upper right corner of the composition is a star-shaped aperture, a reference to the star that led the wise men to the Nativity. Private: Text not to be published to the web.

Display label

The Shadow of Death 1870-72,1873 retouched 1886 Holman Hunt 1827-1910 Oil over tempera on canvas Hunt’s conception of Jesus as a working man was, like his Finding of the Saviour in the Temple ‘strictly historic with not a single fact of any kind in it of a supernatural nature’. From his detailed reconstruction of a Palestinian carpenter’s shop he was able to develop a provocative situation for his audience to unravel. As Jesus stretches his arms, tired from toil, his startled mother sees in the shadow he has cast on the wall a premonition of his crucifixion. He is surrounded by real items which can be interpreted as symbols of the event; the red headband at his feet is like the crown of thorns, the tools linked by his shadow on the wall recall the instruments of torture and crucifixion. Hunt went to Nazareth where Jesus worked as a carpenter, to paint the landscape seen through the window. He also made drawings of carpenters’ workshops and tools, in the end using antique tools he had found in Bethlehem for the final painting. The concept of Jesus as a carpenter had added resonance when it was reported that by the end of the century ‘carpentry had become the most common profession of Ashkenazi Jews in Jerusalem’ Manchester City Galleries