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The Triumph of the Innocents

Title: The Triumph of the Innocents
Date: between 1876 and 1887
Artist: William Holman Hunt
Date of birth:
Nationality: English
Date of death:
Materials: Oil; Canvas
Information: Mary and the infant Christ on the donkey are being led on their nocturnal flight to Egypt by Joseph. They are fleeing from the massacre of all the male babies in Bethlehem organised by King Herod in his attempt to murder the infant Jesus. The souls of these babies, the Holy Innocents, accompany the Holy Family drawn along by mystic bubbles representing Jewish confidence in ultimate salvation. The large bubble includes Jacob’s dream, the Adoration of the Lamb and the Tree of Life.

Hunt was inspired by his personal experience of contemporary Palestine particularly in the principal figures, in the donkey and in the background, but he combines this with an original and erudite symbolism intended to re-interpret the Bible for late Victorian England. The frame was designed by the artist.

The landscape setting is on the road to Gaza, at a spot about a day's journey from Bethlehem. Originally, Hunt had intended the whole picture to be bathed in moonlight. Feeling that this would be too monotonous, he instead gave a luminous supernatural glow to the foreground infants.

This work differs from the earlier 'Scapegoat' and 'Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' in that Hunt here tonally separates foreground and background and does not give equal attention to all parts of the picture. Much more detail is lavished on the foreground.

In landscape and figures, Hunt sought to reproduce as closely as possible the event as it might have looked. In one of his letters to Harold Rathbone he wrote;

'I am always interested to the deepest extent in the illustration of religious history by such means. Since I first knew the East, the opportunities of illustrating old events by existing customs and tradition has enormously decreased, and in another fifty years the world will wonder why, when the mood of European manners had not destroyed primitive forms, painters had not full worked to perpetuate these'

Sidney Colvin characterised Hunt's attitude well;

'He shows himself a child of his age by attending first of all to geography and ethnology and archaeology and local colour, performing the work of "Societies of Biblical Archaeology"',

Hunt's interest in depicting scriptural episodes with geographical and historical accuracy was not merely scientific but designed to awaken the spectator's religious emotions and make him confront the problem of whether or not these biblical events had taken place.
Accession no: WAG 2115
Credit line: Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition with the aid of contributions collected by Harold Rathbone in 1891
Location: Walker Art Gallery, on display