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The Fourth shall be first

10 April 2012

Ayla Lepine considers the Victorians and the Gospel they loved best

St John and the Victorians
Michael Wheeler

Cambridge University Press £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

THE Gospel of St John and the life of its author captivated the Victorian imagination like no other biblical text. Its evocative language from “the Word made flesh” to “the light of the world” appealed to 19th-century artists and theologians alike.

In the historian Michael Wheeler’s latest book, St John and the Victorians, five of the Gospel’s quintessential narratives are framed within the wider cultural history of Victorian Britain, from the marriage at Cana to the post-resurrection appearances. Both iconic and obscure artists, clerics, and writers are marshalled in such a way that Wheeler builds fresh critiques of British history and St John’s unique place within it.

An enriched understanding of Victorian intellectual ambition is attained, and the reader is given a solid and detailed landscape of the complex conditions of a period that brought forth some of the most fundamental and lasting shifts in modern Christian history. Figures such as Thomas Arnold, John Ruskin, John Keble, and Anna Jameson are featured alongside voices that were better-known in their time than in ours.

Wheeler is a visiting professor of English at the University of South­ampton and an honorary professor at Lancaster University’s Ruskin Library Research Centre. His previ­ous books confronted readers with topics such as heaven and hell, Vic­torian biblical criticism, and, most recently, The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-Century English culture (CUP, 2006).

The lucid and impressively wide-ranging content of St John and the Victorians is evidently the result of many years spent in deep study of the period, and for those with a topical interest in the history of High Anglicanism and church controversy, Wheeler’s historical research does not disappoint.

St John and the Victorians is also an important resource for those interested in Victorian painters such as William Dyce, James Tissot, and William Holman Hunt. The absence of colour illustrations is a drawback, as many of Wheeler’s examples are little-known and rarely exhibited. Dyce and Holman Hunt deployed rich palettes of uncompromising primary and secondary hues. Readers keen to pursue this further would do well to Google a few of these images to get a better sense of their distinctive, jewel-like appearance.

Overall, the book is Wheeler’s most art-historical project by far, and it will be welcomed by all with an interest art and faith in Britain. St John and the Victorians reflects a general rise in the meaningful ex­ploration of religion and the arts, and is a timely and learned contribution to Victorian studies.

Dr Ayla Lepine is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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