Monday, November 26, 2012

The cross and the megaliths

Let's spend a few minutes with William Holman Hunt's "A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids," 1849-50. Click to enlarge.

Hunt was one of the founders, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of British artists and craftsmen prominent during the second half of the 19th century.

The title describes the scene. In the background, visible through gaps in the fisherman's shanty, we see a Druid priest exciting a crowd of pagan Britons to violence against Christian missionaries. One chasuble-clad Christian is pursued and caught at the right of the background, presumably to be martyred by the angry mob. Another Christian missionary has found refuge with a converted Christian family.

It is, altogether, a tidy scene, rife with symbolism. It is my understanding that the painting preceded Hunt's own religious awakening; he was apparently at this time not yet a believer. The painting is not so much about the religious conversion of pagans, as it is about Christianity bringing civilization to barbarians.

In this we have an unintentional foreshadowing of Western Christian colonialism -- Spain, Britain, and other powers bringing "enlightened religion" and "civilized values" to benighted heathens and savages. Never mind that the heathens and savages were often hideously exploited and sometimes exterminated in the process. Of the original inhabitants of the Bahamas (to which I will soon repair) not a single one was left alive twenty-five years after Columbus brought them the gift of true religion and civilization.

That druid hell-raiser in the background could equally be Pope Urban preaching the First Crusade, or a 21st-century mullah urging jihad. Or, for that matter, an Irish protestant preacher ranting against papists. Or a U.S. politician wanting to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to folks unlucky enough not to live in the most enlightened nation on earth.

Well, enough ranting of my own. Whenever I look at Hunt's painting, my eye is always drawn to the boy huddled on the earthen floor at right foreground, his face in shadow. His family's situation is precarious. Is he listening for footsteps he knows will come? The innocent are always victims of True Belief.