“The Persecution of the Druids” by William Holman Hunt
“A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids” by William Holman Hunt depicts an episode from early British Christian history, portraying a family helping an injured priest.
Hunt’s painting shows an ancient Christian family of Britons occupying a crudely constructed hut by the riverside. They are carrying for a missionary who is hiding from a mob of pagan British Celts who are outside the shelter.
A Druid is visible in the background on the left, pointing towards another missionary, on the far right who is being chased by the mob. The Christian family is hiding a priest from a crowd of heathens and Druids.
The Druidic symbol of a stone hedge or stone circle is visible through gaps in the back of the hut occupied by the Christian family. The Christian symbol of the red cross crudely painted on the stone is shown within the Christian family’s hut.
The presence of the druids identifies the period of this scene around the time of the gradual Roman conquest of Britain in the mid-1st century, making these missionaries very early ones and probably the first. However, the vestment-like clothes that they wear belong to a much later period of history.
The composition is full of symbolic allusions. The man with the black beard and fur loincloth recalls John the Baptist, and the youth squeezing grapes evokes the Eucharist.
The scene includes many details such as the young boy on the bottom right listening for any approaching footsteps and the weapons carried by male members of the family.
In the stories of the early lives of saints and martyrs, the druids are represented as magicians and diviners. They are described in the myths and stories as resisting and preventing the progress of Christianity.
This painting by William Holman Hunt was exhibited in 1850 and was a companion artwork to John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents.
This painting was less controversial than Millais’s companion piece, but Hunt was still heavily criticized for the odd composition and the contorted poses of the figures.
Hunt himself continued to believe this painting to be one of his best works. In 1872, referring to the painting as “the Early Xtians,” William Holman Hunt wrote in a letter:
“Sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians, I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me, but the truth is that at twenty – health, enthusiasm and yet unpunished confidence in oneself carries a man very near his ultimate length of tether.”
Druids were members of the high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures. Perhaps best remembered as religious leaders, they were also adjudicators, lore keepers, medical professionals, and political advisors.
While the druids are reported to have been literate, they did not record their knowledge in written form. Thus they left no written accounts of themselves. However, they are reported in some detail by their contemporaries from other cultures, such as the Romans and Greeks.
The druid orders were suppressed by the Roman government under the 1st century CE emperors and had disappeared from the written record by the 2nd century.
The druids appear in some of the medieval tales from Christianized Ireland, where they are primarily portrayed as sorcerers who opposed the coming of Christianity.
The druids played an essential part in pagan Celtic society. In his description, Julius Caesar claimed that they were one of the two most important social groups in the culture.
They were responsible for organizing sacrifices, divination, and judicial procedure in Gaulish, British, and Irish societies.
Caesar claimed that they were exempt from military service and the payment of taxes, and had the power to excommunicate people from religious festivals.
The role of druids in Gallic society was held in such respect that if they intervened between two armies, they could stop the battle.
In the wake of the Celtic revival during the 18th and 19th centuries, fraternal and neopagan groups were founded based on ideas about the ancient druids, a movement known as Neo-Druidism.
Many popular notions about druids, are based on misconceptions of 18th-century scholars, which have been superseded by more recent studies.
Roman conquest of Britain
The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, beginning in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius and being largely completed by 87.
The Romans first forced their way inland in several battles against British tribes. Following a general uprising in AD 60 in which the Britons sacked Londinium, the Romans suppressed the rebellion. The Romans eventually went on to push as far north as central Caledonia.
Even after Hadrian’s Wall was established as the border, tribes in Scotland and northern England repeatedly rebelled against Roman rule, and forts continued to be maintained across northern Britain to protect against these attacks.
Christianity in Britain
The early history of Christianity in Britain is highly obscure. Medieval legends concerning the conversion of the island have been discredited.
The first archaeological evidence and records that show a Christian community large enough to maintain churches and bishops dates to the 3rd and 4th centuries.
These more formal organizational structures arose from materially modest beginnings. The British delegation to the 353 Council of Rimini had to beg for financial assistance from its fellows to return home.
The Romano-British population seems to have been mostly Christian by the Sub-Roman period. However, the Saxon invasions of Britain destroyed most of the formal church structures in the east of Britain as they progressed, replacing it with a form of Germanic polytheism.
Christianity, which was extinguished with the arrival of the Saxons in the east, was reintroduced again to eastern Britain by Gregorian Mission, in about 600.
William Holman Hunt
William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) was an English painter and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His paintings were notable for their incredible attention to detail, vivid color, and symbolism.
These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs.
Of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt remained most loyal to their ideals throughout his career. He was always keen to maximize the popular appeal and public visibility of his works.
The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life, and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy.
They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible, and with intense attention to detail. The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas.
The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848.
The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.”
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.
A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids
- Title: A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids
- Also: A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids
- Artist: William Holman Hunt
- Date: 1860
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Style: Pre-Raphaelite
- Type: Christian Art
- Dimensions: Height: 111 cm (43.7 in); Width: 141 cm (55.5 in)
- Museum: Ashmolean Museum
William Holman Hunt
- Name: William Holman Hunt
- Born: 1827, London, England
- Died: 1910 (aged 83), London, England,
- Nationality: English
- Notable works:
Dialogues at the Ashmolean Museum: Holman Hunt
A Virtual Tour of Pre-Raphaelite Artists
- Christ in the House of His Parents
- The Martyr of Solway
- Blow Blow Thou Wind
- The Black Brunswicker
- A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford
- Our English Coasts
- Isabella and the Pot of Basil
- Self-portrait William Holman Hunt
- Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids
- The Lady of Shalott
- The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius
- Circe Invidiosa
- I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott
- Hylas and the Nymphs
- Echo and Narcissus
- Ulysses and the Sirens
- Consulting the Oracle
- A Tale from the Decameron
- Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses
- Saint Eulalia
- Fair Rosamund
Ford Madox Brown
The Druids: What Do We Really Know?
“All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.”
– John Ruskin
“The greatest foe to art is luxury; art cannot live in its atmosphere.”
– William Morris
“Art is not a study of positive reality; it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
– John Ruskin
“Better by far, you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.”
– Christina Rossetti
“The past is not dead; it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
– William Morris
“The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself — the art is imperfect which is visible-the feelings are but feebly touched if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement.”
– John Ruskin
“With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.”
– William Morris
“When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me.”
– Christina Rossetti
“Love, which is quickly kindled in the gentle heart, seized this man for the fair form that was taken from me; the manner still hurts me. Love which absolves no beloved one from loving, seized me so strongly with his charm that, as thou sees, it does not leave me yet.”
– Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Pre-Raphaelites in Oxford: Ashmolean Museum – Paintings and Sculpture
The Druids Name and Places of Worship
“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Photo Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain]