Art of the Redemption 10: The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

Art of the Redemption 10: The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

In a contemporary review, the nineteenth century preacher and social reformer George Dawson described The Light of the World, as a sermon on canvas and stated; “Such a picture explains the true uses which art had in the Middle Ages. With many people, nowadays, paintings are only the last touch of ornament given to their houses; but in the Middle Ages the painter occupied the place preachers would occupy now.” In viewing this painting one is inclined to agree with Dawson’s enthusiastic pronouncement on Holman Hunt’s work. It is no mere ornamentation but a beautiful sermon on the mission of Christ.

Thus, central to the painting is the patient figure of the risen Lord, lantern in hand, knocking upon and waiting without, the tightly shut door. A door long closed with rusting hinges, surrounded by brambles and ivy. This door represents the firmly closed door of the soul. There is no handle on Christ’s side, for the door must be opened from within. Christ holds in his hand the lantern of the Church which illuminates the way and which is bound tightly to his wrist with cords. Upon his head are two crowns; one of thorns the other of gold. The former symbolises his Passion and the latter his heavenly glory; interestingly the thorns have begun to bud showing the new life flowing from Christ’s sacrifice. The face of Christ shows a measure of sadness as he continues to knock and to wait, but it is also patient and full of kindness. Christ knows the night may be long but he is not about to walk away.

There are numerous other fascinating details, rich in religious significance, which deserve closer inspection and which make it well worth the journey to see the original if possible. In particular pay attention to the bat, the robe, the apples, and the jewelled clasp – see what you will make of them! The work is open to the public at Keble College, Oxford. Later versions painted by the artist are to be found in St Pau’ls, London and the Manchester Art Gallery.

Graham Hunt OP