Paintings You Should Know: William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’

Light of the World Keble original
Hunt’s original ‘The Light of the World’, painted 1851-53, now hanging in Keble College, Oxford.

“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)

‘Not very good’ is a common modern description of Hunt’s most famous painting, and yet it was, and remains wildly popular: so much so that there are in fact three versions. The original, painted between 1851 and 1853 from a live model by night at Worcester Park Farm in Surrey, hangs in a side-room off the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. A life-sized version, painted in 1854, toured the world at the start of the 20th century and now hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the third currently hangs in Manchester City Art Gallery.

Hunt, one of the founders of the Romantic Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood movement, believed that he produced this painting by divine instruction, and quite apart from the portrayal of Jesus Himself it is rich in Christian symbolism. In fact, before reading further, I would invite you to take a long look at the painting and see how many symbols you can identify.

The direct reference to the passage from Revelation is obvious. Jesus is indeed standing at the door and knocking, although the weary look on his face and the position of his feet suggests that he is becoming discouraged. The lack of an external door-handle illustrates the inability of the Lord to force His way into an unwilling heart: the door can only be opened from within. And the weeds around the door, representing sin, suggest that it hasn’t been opened for a long, long time, and that it will now be quite difficult to do so.

In Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Hunt explained other points of symbolism in The Light of the World :

Light of the World St Pauls
The life-sized St. Paul’s Cathedral version of ‘The Light of the World’, 1854.

‘The closed door was the obstinately shut mind, the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrances of sloth; the orchard the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul. The music of the still small voice was the summons to the sluggard to awaken and become a zealous labourer under the Divine Master; the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance; the kingly and priestly dress of Christ, the sign of His reign over the body and the soul, to them who could give their allegiance to Him and acknowledge God’s overrule. In making it a night scene, lit mainly by the lantern carried by Christ, I had followed metaphorical explanation in the Psalms, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,’ with also the accordant allusions by St. Paul to the sleeping soul, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” (I.350-51)’

A more detailed discussion of the symbolism of The Light of the World can be found in this booklet, produced for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Hunt intended this painting to invite a personal reaction or response from the viewer. How do you respond to Hunt’s painting?

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