A Road-Map Through ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ by Sir John Everett Millais, 1850


If there are two key characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood it’d be difficult to miss, they are intense realism, and heavy use of symbolism.  There are often few elements which don’t take on some greater significance, telling us about the narrative or figures depicted.  It is no different with this piece, where every detail is carefully thought out and intended to inform the reader about some aspect of the significance of the scene.  This piece intends to act as a ‘key’ to the map itself, the piece, wherein I’ll describe the likely meaning behind each of the symbols.  However, it is perhaps necessary that this ‘road-map’ has a slightly longer introduction than most.  While it was still far from unusual for painters to depict religious scenes, Millais’ inspiration is slightly more radical than the typical Church of England brand of Christianity.  He and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were followers and supporters of the Oxford Movement, also known as Tractarianism.  While little heard of now, this group was once thought of as a considerable threat to religious peace in England.  Essentially, it faced the threat to religious belief caused by the Industrial Revolution, with the squalor and poverty it brought with it, by seeking a return to more Catholic modes of worship.  This would see a return to a greater interest in ceremony and in the more materialistic side of churches themselves.  I do not feel myself well enough equipped to give you a full summary of the aims of this movement, and its effects on society as a whole, but I will at least say that it was of great effect within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Many Tractarian priests worked in the slums, and this tied in with the PRB’s existing leanings.  This can be seen in ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, which was highly criticised in its time for the realism of depiction of the Holy Family.  Charles Dickens said that the Virgin Mary looked no better than a gin alcoholic, and it was considered blasphemous to depict them as ordinary people.  But this was the whole point of the painting, Millais wished to depict them as real people, the sort of people that those stuck in the slums and taking the negative side of the Industrial Revolution could really empathise with, and see themselves in.  It is not so very different from the paintings, or purpose of the paintings of the Counter Reformation.  Spirituality was facing a severe threat as social conditions grew worse, and the gap between poor and rich grew wider.  Millais combats this by giving the people a Holy Family they can feel involved in, and that they can almost feel kinship with, just as Caravaggio had used real people as his models in his religious works, and had heightened the effect of chiaroscuro in order to draw people into his works.  Millais’ depiction is perhaps the most honest depiction of the Holy Family, certainly in its own time, as we see Joseph’s warn hands, and all the figures, simply, look like they have known many hard days of work.  Here the typical PRB beyond-photographic detail comes to the fore, and is put to a real purpose, making the Holy Family sympathetic figures, and bringing them into the new, Industrialised Age.

The Key Itself:

This the hand, and feet of Christ, and these cuts, perhaps some how the fault of the rather guilty looking John, foreshadow the stigmata, the wounds from the Crucifixion.  The position in which he holds his hand also resembles the way He is typically depicted as holding them when blessing, thus foreshadowing his role as a religious leader.

The heads of the sheep outside the door also suggest Christ’s later role as leader of the Christian flock.  To gain a suitable level of realism, Millais bought real sheep’s heads from a butcher.

Here we see two different symbols.  The first is the ladder, which refers to Jacob’s Ladder, and is often seen in the background of religious works, such as in engravings by Durer.  The second is the dove, which traditionally symbolises the Holy Spirit (The Oxford Movement believed in the Trinity).  Even its position is traditional, as it sits almost central, and slightly above the other figures, thus looking down on them and watching over them.

I said John looked guilty, and this perhaps is borne out by the fact that he brings to bowl of water with which to clean the young Jesus’ wounds.  This is suggestive of his later role in baptising Christ.

A carpenter’s tool, making reference to the Holy Trinity

Another carpenter’s tool, perhaps here used to foreshadow the removal of Christ from the Cross.

Joseph is busy at work making a door. This itself is a symbol of Christian Spiritual revival, bringing to mind ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me’, Christ’s words as noted in the Book of Revelation (a theme more clearly represented in William Holman-Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’, from 1853-54).  Thus this is the door that Christ will knock on, and it is almost the viewer’s choice whether they answer.  So Millais ties together the image of the Holy Family as real people, with something that will specifically ask the audience if they will be affected by this.

This second bird could be seen as a further symbol of spiritual rejuvenation, as it drinks from a dish left out by the Holy Family.

This level of symbolism may seem overwhelming, even tedious, to modern eyes, but in its own time viewers would have been highly attuned to the possible meaning of any choices.  It was a time when it was common knowledge to know ‘the language of flowers’, which was followed as a necessary part of polite etiquette (a knowledge which Millais taps into in ‘Ophelia’, 1951-52).  When comparing English and French paintings of the period, it is quite clear that English tastes far preferred narrative, and appreciated being given the opportunity to interpret the looks of different figures, what their clothing said about them, and what the artist might be meaning to suggest about the character by the objects they are depicted with.  It might here be noted that although Millais’ depiction is radical in many ways, he still sticks to the traditional attire of Mary, she wears a blue dress (an unrealistic element, as blue was an extremely expensive dye which would not have been affordable for a family as humble as the one he depicts) with a white shawl.  While this allows the viewer to easily identify her, it perhaps is also an act of defiance: he wants it to be as clear as possible that it really is this woman who is the mother of Christ.  Overall he skilfully partners his intense realism with a heavy use of symbolism, in order to present a message about the basic humanity of the Holy Family, and to bring them back in touch with a rapidly changing world, in which he saw the need for people to seek comfort in religion and Christian teachings.

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