H.R. Rookmaaker in Modern Art at the Death of a Culture comments on this painting, The Shadow of Death, by William Holman Hunt. To understand this quote, you need to understand the context in which Rookmaaker is speaking. He is talking about the Enlightenment desire to get “just the facts” of history without any sort of interpretation. He says that Matthew in his genealogy “spoke the truth; he did not want to bypass the facts, but he did not want to see the facts only in their factuality but in their true meaning. We, in our obsession with tangible facts alone, have become the poorer” (73).
Contrasting Matthew’s biblical, right vision of Jesus with this painting, he says:
“I am not wanting to criticize it just because the Bible does not mention the story but because the whole feeling of the picture would seem to be no more than sheer sentimentality: our feelings are kindled, but the painter show us nothing of any depth or importance at all. There is no ‘exegesis’, no confession, no credal statement. Here is a fact, of no importance…and we are invited to give it meaning, within us, in our feelings (certainly not with our intelligence).
“…almost all ‘Christian art’ since has followed this line. Think of Bible illustrations, of Sunday school pictures, or reproductions on the walls of church halls….For centuries evangelicals have steered clear of art, and so lost their critical powers and any real understanding of the arts…Christians saw the deficiencies of the liberal reconstructions of the life of Christ of Hall Caine and Renan, but failed to see that the same spirit was at work in these pictures.
“Evangelicals have also underestimated the importance of art. They have thought of biblical pictures as being representations of biblical stories. But they did not see that the salt had become tasteless, that there was so much idealization, so much of a sort of pseudo-devotional sentimentality in these pictures that they are very far from the reality the Bible talks about. Could it be that the false ideas of many people, non-Christians as well as Christians, have of Christ as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and ‘loving’, never really of this world, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth-century liberalism” (75).