The Pre-Raphaelites: Imagery and allegory

The awakening conscience (Holman Hunt)

The awakening conscience (Holman Hunt)


Last weekend I had the privilege and pleasure of joining a guided visit to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Gallery. (It closes soon, so if you want to see it, get along soon).  Our academic expert was Dr. Anne Anderson, and we heard an excellent lecture from art historian Dr. James Hicks at the Tate.  I thought I knew a bit about the Pre-Raphaelites, but this visit was a revelation.

If you look at Rosetti’s “Annunciation” there’s a curious vertical red structure on the right hand side.  It turns out to be a tapestry frome, and the very same tapestry, on the same frame, that the BVM was working on in the artist’s earlier picture “The Girlhood of Mary”.

So the allegorical meaning is clear: the tapestry as a work-in-progress represents Mary as a girl, while the completed tapestry signifies the grown woman.

One of the movement’s best-known paintings is “The Awakening Conscience” by Holman Hunt (see above).  The basic story is easy to interpret.  We’re in an opulent, over-furnished, over-decorated Victorian interior.  The “kept woman” (no ring on her ring finger) rises from the lap of her philandering lover in a sudden fit of realisation, remorse, repentance and potential redemption.  But the picture is full of allegorical detail.  A discarded man’s glove on the floor suggests the way in which such men treat such women.  Under the table, a cat toys with an injured bird.  A shaft of sunlight, bottom right, highlights the loose threads from the woman’s unravelling needlework, reflecting the unravelling of her life.

The apparent window at the back turns out to be a mirror: we can see both the man and the woman reflected in it.  Yet curiously, where the viewer — or the artist — would expect to be reflected in the mirror, there is emptiness.  Holman Hunt wanted to suggest that the woman was seeing “The Light of the World”, another of his pictures, which the artist intended should be hung alongside The Awakening Conscience.

So the “viewer” in that sense was Christ himself.

But I’m still trying to work out the significance of the roll of kitchen towel, bottom left.

Holman Hunt’s painting “The Hireling Shepherd” is equally full of allegory, and topical reference.


As a hireling, this shepherd is more worried about wages than work, and has no real care for his duties.  His interest is rather focussed on the bucolic maiden sharing his embrace.  The ruddy glow in his cheeks may have more to do with the drink he’s carrying on his belt than with a healthy outdoor life.  And the sheep wander off.  One seems distressed; another is making its way into the adjacent cornfield.

In 1851 when the picture was first exhibited, it was seen as an allegory for the state of the Church of England.  Riven with self-referential internal debate, arguing over the Tractarian Movement, it had lost sight of its mission, and (to an extent) abandoned its flock.  Dr. Anderson suggested that the sheep in the cornfield represents a former Anglican off to join the Methodists.

Strange how the allegory of 1851 remains relevant in 2013.  The Church of England continues to tear itself apart, but today over homosexuality and women bishops.  And it seems to have abandoned its mission, and the care of souls.

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7 Responses to The Pre-Raphaelites: Imagery and allegory

  1. Martin Sewell says:

    Isn’t the ” kitchen roll” a scroll with its bag – maybe a reference to the 6th commandment?

  2. I went to the exhibition and had to leave early because I was laughing too much. Holman Hunt wasn’t very good at hands, was he in the top picture. Randy old devil! I love the Victorian hypocrisy! I adore the fact that it tells us a lot more about him than about the biblical stories. And using models in the way he did shows how terribly wooden the whole thing is compared to the speed, light and joy of the coming generation of impressionists. “And then all my clothes fell off……”
    But everyone else was in hushed reverence mood as they paraded round, so I was in a minority of one! Glad you enjoyed it so much.

  3. Linda Hudson says:

    Nothing New Under The Sun! Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verse 15. ( what is happening now has happened before, because God makes the sames things happen over and over again!

  4. Linda Hudson says:

    you hit the nail right on the head there rfhmep!

  5. Jim Miller says:

    I am presently teaching a unit on this very thing in my 12th grade English class in Gloucester, Virginia. A field trip to the Tate was a bit out of the question, presently anyway! Cool to see your discussion here.

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