According to Jason Rosenfeld, as students, the Pre-Raphaelites consciously chose to avoid the influence of Leonardo and other old masters. Notwithstanding this, I would argue that in the case of The Finding, Holman Hunt found some inspiration in Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495). Additionally, the painting Christ Among the Doctors by Bernardino Luini (c. 1550) in the National Gallery may well have been a consideration for Holman Hunt given that it was wrongly attributed to Leonardo whilst he was at the Royal Academy.
Holman Hunt had indicated in a letter to John Ruskin that he regarded his Finding picture as being as important to him as The Last Supper was to Leonardo da Vinci. In the letter which responded to Ruskin’s criticism, Holman Hunt makes reference to Leonardo taking seven years to complete The Last Supper as part justification for taking so long on his Finding painting. Furthermore, notwithstanding any earlier commitment to avoid any influence, it is fair to assume that Holman Hunt admired da Vinci’s work given that he is favourably placed on the renowned Pre-Raphaelite List of Immortals. This snippet of information might indicate something of Holman Hunt’s inner professional and religious ambitions; to create a memorable and potentially canonical work of art within a new, contemporary religious tradition. However, in formal terms it is possible to detect more than a nod in da Vinci’s direction. In terms of The Last Supper, The Finding’s deployment of a cast of symbolic characters surrounding the figure of Jesus would seem the most evident characteristic. Furthermore, the tentative link with the festival of Passover would connect the pictures within the religious sphere. The last supper as conveyed in the New Testament book of Matthew (26:17-30) is meant to take place at the Passover meal, and The Finding takes place after the seven-day festival has just come to an end.
However, it is Holman Hunt’s construction of pictorial depth that is most pertinent here. The inclusion within the composition of a graduated set of pillars spaced in accordance with conventions of perspective corresponds with the graduated pillars within either side of The Last Supper.
Notwithstanding this correlation, the method he uses to do this has an element of ambiguity about it. The main action of The Finding takes place in the foreground. And yet, logic tells the viewer that there must be a great deal of space in such a large interior structure. Hunt has made use of a number of devices to suggest illusory depth. Firstly, there is the skilful handling of multiple figures in a compressed space. Holman Hunt’s use of shade and shadow contribute much to the appearance of naturalistic perspective concerning the grouping of the figures. Additionally, the pillars and the smaller figures at the rear of the Temple suggest an extreme elongated space. The illusion is further emphasised by the long view into the landscape to the right-hand side of the picture.
I believe that Holman Hunt’s mention of the importance of Leonardo’s Last Supper to Ruskin to be more than a passing example to justify his own current approach. I believe that Holman Hunt gave a great deal of thought to the allusion with Leonardo.
In The Last Supper, Da Vinci achieved a sense of pictorial space by means of mathematical and symbolic perspective. By mathematical I refer to a measured calculated perspective that corresponds to our sense of the rational and ordered, or the real. By symbolic, I refer to the symbolic as a more spiritual notion of space to convey a notion of the irrational or ideal.
In The Last Supper, the room within the fresco is depicted as deeper than it is wide. This creates some ambiguity. Is that depicted space meant to be an annex to the depicted refectory setting, or a continuation of the actual refectory in which it was painted? Like the renowned optical illusion that oscillates between duck and rabbit where the viewer can only perceive one at a time, the space depicted in The Last Supper can be perceived as working in both ways. The duality, the blend of the rational and symbolic are further reflected in Leonardo’s use of theological symbolism whereby nourishment comes from food as well as the spiritual, emphasised by the refectory setting. In the case of Leonardo’s Last Supper, the viewer must actively interpret a blend of biblical and artistic language.
I would argue that Holman Hunt also makes use of symbolic and measured perspective techniques. This creates the sense that Holman Hunt achieves similar effects to The Last Supper with The Finding. This is suggested by the paradox within both pictures in that they seem to have a horizontal frieze-like band of figures combined with a simultaneous conveyance of deep space where viewers must construct that sense of reality for themselves.
Da Vinci regarded the measured intervals between the pillars as corresponding with musical interludes, that is to say, measuring them in terms of musical values, and the pillars in Holman Hunt’s work further suggest a similar rhythmic measuring of the space.
Additionally, da Vinci places three window openings at the rear of the space. Holman Hunt places a window opening at the rear of the Temple.
The symbolic use of colour is relevant also, as not all of Leonardo’s choices are naturalistic. In The Last Supper, Jesus’s clothing is more saturated in colour than that of the disciples. Hunt also makes Jesus’s clothing suitably vibrant to contrast with that of Mary’s.
The dual approach to perspective and colour can also be extended to the specific depiction of space in The Last Supper. Leonardo’s considerable diligence and deeply thought out methods of working are qualities that we can discern in Holman Hunt’s approach, and this is what he alludes to in his letter to Ruskin.
Ambiguity in the Last Supper is echoed in The Finding by the ambiguous position of the notional viewer. Where are we supposed to be in the scheme of things? Conceptually, we may be on the outside of The Finding’s world and looking in on the scene in the style of a voyeur or a theatre audience. However, if Jesus’s gaze is directed outwards, at us, then we are potentially included within the world of the painting. The scene is not in that case an enclosed world unto itself. In this way, The Finding forges a link with the devotional art of the Italian Renaissance which also assumed the interaction or involvement of the notional viewer.