English Ph.D. Dissertations


Painted Sermons: Explanatory Rhetoric and William Holman Hunt's Inscribed Frames

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English/Rhetoric and Writing

First Advisor

Sue Carter (Advisor)


This study was undertaken to determine the rhetorical function of the verbal texts inscribed on the frames of the paintings of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. The nineteenth century expansion of the venues of rhetoric from spoken to written forms coupled with the growing interest in belle lettres created the possibility for the inscriptions to have a greater function than merely captioning the work. Visits were made to museums in the United States and Great Britain to ascertain which of Hunt's paintings have inscribed frames. In addition, primary sources at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Library, London, were consulted to determine if the artist had recorded his design plans or stated any specific purpose for the inscriptions. In addition, secondary sources were examined for relevant discussions of Hunt's works. It was concluded that the inscribed works fit the parameters of explanatory rhetoric, a form informational and didactic rather than persuasive in nature. The common nineteenth century venue for explanatory rhetoric was the pulpit, instructing converted parishioners about their Christian duties and Church doctrines. It was also concluded that this shift in rhetorical purpose was not new to the Victorian era, rather that there is a long history of explanatory rhetoric going back at least to Augustine. As well it was determined that there is a long history of the use of the visual in sermonizing. Thus, Hunt's works, addressing both doctrine and duty, reflect the characteristics of explanatory rhetoric. This study suggests that exploration of explanatory rhetoric should be undertaken in greater detail, for it is a rich addition to the field of rhetoric, potentially reaching across the boundaries of the liberal arts. In addition, this study suggests that a re-examination of the modes of discourse be considered, according information the same consideration as persuasion and opening the door for categorizing rhetorical practice by purpose, not genre. The conclusions of this study support the contention of Robert Connors whose articles on explanatory rhetoric encourage a deeper consideration of that relatively unexplored field.