About the artwork
Hunt's approach to the subject of the Flight into Egypt was novel, not to say eccentric. The picture shows the spirits of the massacred boy children leading the Holy Family in an almost ritualistic procession.
In the top left-hand corner a group of three boys wake from earthbound death. One holds a bird (symbol of the soul), which will shortly awake and fly away. Below is a further group of boys with garlands of flowers and holding spring blossoms. Hunt intended this to be decoration ready for sacrifice. In the foreground, a boy examines his cut shirt. The deathblow on his side has already healed. At the far right, another group of infants lead the whole procession. One child has dropped a vine, another is about to throw a palm leaf (traditional symbol of martyrdom) before Christ.
The jelly-like surface on which the children stand is Hunt's rendering of water continually flowing - 'the stream of eternal life'. Hunt described the bubbles which float upwards in the picture as 'magnified globes which image the thoughts rife in that age in the minds of pious Jews'. The figures in the smaller orb are difficult to make out. They include a naked figure, a tree and possibly a snake. The larger foreground sphere, Hunt explained, contains a lamb - symbolic of Christ, surrounded by the Elders in Heaven. In the circle beneath are those who broken-heatedly turn towards Heaven. In their midst is the Tree of Life for the healing of all nations.
Hunt did many pencil and chalk studies for the painting. Some of these are in the Walker's collection.
In his landscapes and figures, Hunt tried to show as closely as possible the event as it might have actually 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 year the world will wonder why, when the mood of European manners had not destroyed primitive forms, painters had not full worked to perpetuate these.' Hunt believed in depicting scriptural episodes with geographical and historical accuracy. This was designed to awaken the spectator's religious emotions and make them confront the question of whether or not these biblical events had taken place.
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.
Hunt first considered painting this subject as early as 1865. He returned to the idea in 1870 on his second trip to the Holy Land. Here he painted an oil sketch and some related landscape studies. During his third trip to the Holy Land between 1875-78, this picture took up much of his time.
The three years that Hunt worked on this painting were full of difficulties. His Jerusalem home was uninhabitable and his stored painting materials badly damaged. Hunt built a new house and started work on the picture using local linen instead of canvas. His boxes of materials arrived from England after five months. He had already done a great deal of work on the picture so decided to carry on with it. As the painting progressed, the technical problems increased. The linen base tore when stretched and buckled in the centre.
Hunt abandoned the picture until he returned to London in 1879. After having the linen backed with canvas, he began painting again. However, the centre portion continued to twist. Hunt seriously considered that demonic interference was preventing him completing the picture. On Millais's advice, he sent it to another restorer, but eventually gave up. He then painted a replica that he finished in 1884 (that is now in the Tate Gallery). Hunt later had the defective piece cut out from the first picture. He then inserted a newly painted Virgin and Child.
Hunt designed the frame as part of the picture. Small classical decorations set off the larger repeated pattern of alternating pomegranates and what appear to be fuchsias. The pomegranate has a twofold Christian symbolic significance. Because it contains countless seeds enclosed in a sphere, it is viewed as symbolic of the membership of the Christian church, united in Christ. Because it is a red fleshy fruit, it has also been associated with the bloody suffering of Christ's body on the cross. Fuchsias have no special traditional meaning. Hunt may have intended them as an echo on the frame of the floral garlands in the painting.
The critical reaction to this picture was on the whole enthusiastic. Ruskin thought it 'the greatest religious painting of our time'. He compared the children's beauty to the cherubs on the cantorias in Florence by the fifteenth-century sculptors Donatello and Della Robbia. Millais, William Morris and George Frederick Watts all thought it was amongst Hunt's greatest work.
In 1891, the Walker Art Gallery bought this picture for £3519, made up from private donations, exhibition entrance fees and money from Liverpool Corporation. This fell well short of the 5,500 guineas that Hunt had originally asked. Harold Rathbone organised the subscriptions and persuaded Hunt to lower his price. Hunt was influenced in allowing it to go for less partly out of gratitude to the Liverpool Academy. In the 1850s the Academy had supported his work when he was poor. He was also persuaded because the picture was to hang with 'Dante's Dream' (bought 1881 for £1575) and Millais's Isabella' (bought 1884 for £1050). Together, these paintings formed a permanent memorial to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.