In his 1848 novel Yeast, socialist campaigner and Anglican priest Charles Kingsley launched a stinging attack on established leaders in the Church of England, for their obsession with irrelevant doctrine and failure to tackle social injustice. Three years later, Holman Hunt painted ‘The Hireling Shepherd’.
The connection is not obvious at first. A shepherd and maiden loll back in the sun, their faces flushed with drink from the keg of cider on his belt. Her naked feet dangle above the marshy stream. He leans in, a captured moth in his hand; her face suggests an ambiguous welcome to his sexual advance.
Behind them, neglected sheep cross into the cornfield. On the left, two collapse on the matted grass, already dangerously bloated on corn: they will die if unattended. On her lap, a lamb eats sour green apples.
Painted with the characteristic naturalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the picture presents as a piece of Victorian moralism: a warning against the dangers of alcohol, casual sex, and idleness. ‘Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?’ ran the quote from King Lear which Holman Hunt included in the exhibition catalogue. ‘Thy sheep be in the corn; And for one blast of thy minikin mouth, Thy sheep shall take no harm.’
But the iconography suggests something more.
A pastoral scene: one man, one woman, a half-eaten apple, and the hint of sexual impropriety. Look closely, and the moth at the centre of the painting can be identified as a Death’s-head hawkmoth, its markings the shape of a human skull. There are allusions here to the Garden of Eden, and the corruption of the Fall.
These biblical echoes are not accidental. In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel denounced political and religious leaders of his day as ‘shepherds’ who fatten themselves at the expense of the flock, and allow sheep to be scattered and destroyed. In the New Testament, Jesus presented himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, by contrast with the hireling shepherd – the paid hand who abandons sheep to the prowling wolves.
Here, in pictorial form, Holman Hunt presents his indictment of the established church.
‘Muddle headed pastors’, he wrote, describing the picture to a colleague, ‘who instead of performing their services to their flock… discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul’.
The message was clear. Focus on irrelevant doctrine and internal politics, ignore basic needs, and people slowly but surely drift away. In ‘Notes on the construction of sheepfolds’, published that same year, art critic John Ruskin used similar metaphors to denounce the divisions and inadequacies of the church.
But it didn’t stop there. Holman Hunt produced a sequel the following year. In ‘Our English Coasts’, also known as ‘Strayed Sheep’, the shepherd is now absent altogether. Entirely abandoned, the flock stray dangerously close to high cliffs. One is already caught, tangled in thorns. One misstep, one panicked nudge, and sheep will be sent tumbling towards the sea far below.
Painted when fear of invasion from France was high, Holman Hunt’s target this time seems to have been political: an implicit attack on a government which had abandoned its people, leaving them vulnerable, alone, and defenceless.
Holman Hunt offers a lesson here for preacher and politician alike.
When the establishment fails, when leaders from the mainstream don’t deliver, when institutions turn in on themselves, focussing on irrelevant disputes, people will drift away, disenchanted, seeking hope in the simplistic solutions and dangerous certainties of the hucksters, the extremists, and the fundamentalists of the age.
A warning as relevant today as ever it was.