Religion was a powerful, though controversial and increasingly contested, presence in Victorian culture. Scientific enquiry, sectarian division and social unrest were eroding the power of the established church. The PRB sought to make the moral and humane teachings of the Bible relevant in order to emphasise suffering and compassion in this world rather than redemption in the next. This room juxtaposes Pre-Raphaelite religious paintings and scenes from modern life: both are preoccupied with morality and salvation. Rejecting traditional religious imagery, the Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from the Bible with unprecedented realism. Millais made studies for Christ in the House of his Parents in a real carpenter’s shop, and painted the Holy Family as everyday figures rather than ideal types. This shocked viewers such as Charles Dickens, who found Millais’s Virgin Mary to be ‘horrible in her ugliness’. Hunt was so committed to truthful representation that he made the arduous voyage to the Holy Land, where he could paint the actual settings of biblical events.
Religious and moral thinking permeated everyday life. Ford Madox Brown’s social tableau, Work, celebrates the ‘nobleness and even sacredness’ of labour, suggesting salvation for the heroic manual workers rather than the idle rich. Pre-Raphaelite representations of women both encompassed and challenged Victorian ideals. In Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, a ‘kept woman’ realises the error of her ways, perhaps as a result of religious feelings, while The Children’s Holiday presents an idyll of middle-class domesticity