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William Holman Hunt, The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1892-1899)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1892-1899) by William Holman Hunt.

About the Work

Title : The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Artist : William Holman Hunt
Year : 1892-1899
Medium : Mixture of oil and resin on canvas
Dimensions :92.1 x 125.7 cm (36 1/4 x 49 1/2 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Miracle of the Sacred Fire : Jerusalem

According to the digital catalogue of the Harvard Art Museums :

“This painting represents the annual “miracle of the sacred fire” at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Denounced as a fraud for centuries, the event continued to attract thousands of pilgrims, who eagerly awaited the rekindling of the flame over Christ’s purported tomb. Hunt found the scene, with its crush of bodies, to be distasteful and heretical, but was keen to capture its “dramatic, historic, and picturesque” qualities.” 

The Miracle of the Sacred Fire occurs annually in the Church of Resurrection in Jerusalem. The ceremony is held on a first Sunday after the spring equinox and Jewish Passover. Hundreds and thousands of believers gather each year at the Sepulchre to witness the miracle. They chant hymns, often to the sound of drums.

The holy flame, which appears over the purported tomb of Jesus Christ is passed along from candle to candle and the pilgrims rejoice. The moments leading up to the miracle tend however, to be extremely tense.

Hunt’s painting depicts the point at which the miracle has just occurred, as the priest just reveals the flame to all those present.

Other Details

William Holman Hunt’s The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre is housed in the Harvard Art Museums’ collection Room 2120 of European and American Art, 17th–19th century. It is part of the museum’s The Lure of the East collection.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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