Back to homepage

A Peek into Our Collections: The Miracle of the Sacred Fire

Taken together, the objects on display in our inaugural installation tell the story of the world’s great art—from ancient to modern times and across all media. Index asked curators to share vignettes about a select group of objects that showcase the breadth and depth of our collections, offering you a window on what will be on view when our new facility opens to the public on November 16.  

William Holman Hunt, The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1892–99, British, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

This painting by William Holman Hunt is part of the celebrated collection that Grenville Lindall Winthrop (Harvard Class of 1886) bequeathed to the Fogg Museum in 1943. The work represents the “miracle of the sacred fire” at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, an annual event in which a flame appears at Christ’s tomb, which pilgrims then use to light candles to purify their sins. Although the legitimacy of the event was disputed and the artist himself found the violent event to be heretical, Hunt was keen to capture the scene’s “dramatic, historic, and picturesque” qualities. In a key that Hunt furnished for the painting’s exhibition in London in 1899, he identifies the flame borne by a priest to the right of the shrine and an English woman at the lower right, protecting her children from the spectacle, as a contrast to the expectant pilgrim family in the foreground.

See other highlighted objects here.