Diana or Christ? Seeing and feeling doubt in late Victorian visual culture

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A young woman, a Christian from the third century CE, has a serious decision to make. She stands before a vast crowd at Ephesus, in what is now Turkey. Should she show her allegiance to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, and live, or choose Christ, and be thrown to the lions? Victorian gallery-goers were entranced by this scene, an 1881 painting by Anglo-Catholic painter Edwin Long, exhibited in that year at the Royal Academy, and again to widespread acclaim in the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition of 1887.

The steadfast faith of its protagonist rapidly found its way into contemporary sermons, and was widely discussed in the Protestant press. One lengthy article on the painting in the evangelical journal Sunday at Home praised the ‘constancy of the Maiden Martyr’, but pondered whether nineteenth-century Christians in fact faced greater (although less obviously immediately life threatening) challenges to maintaining their faith. It dwells in particular on the importance of visual signs of faith and the facial expressions of devotion – in both the third and nineteenth centuries. Commentators focussed on the apparently virginal body of the young female martyr, who comes to embody – in her glowing white painted form – religious feeling, devotion through the theological (as well as art-historical and visual) valences of ‘inward light’. The religious feelings evoked by the painting were importantly gendered and racially specific.

Using Diana or Christ? as a case study, this article examines how visual culture contributed to the depiction, circulation and debate over feelings of religious doubt and certitude in late nineteenth-century Britain. It offers new understandings of Victorian historical painting, asking how immersive paintings set in the past fostered a transhistorical sense of Christian community and emotional connections across the centuries. Diana or Christ? found its way into both artistic and religious discourses in the 1880s and 1890s. This article questions what the visual in particular can bring to our understandings of Victorian religious feeling – but also what investigating these religious sentiments might tell us about Victorian visual culture.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
Journal19: interdisciplinary studies in the long nineteenth century
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2016


  • Edwin Long
  • Religious emotions
  • Martyrdom
  • Manchester Jubilee Exhibition
  • Ephesus
  • Classical Reception


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