“The Light of the World” is one of William Holman Hunt’s most famous and symbolic paintings. John Ruskin described it as “One of the very noblest works of sacred art ever produced in this or any other age.”
The spiritual meaning of the painting “The Light of the World” is described here by the English writer George Dawson MA c.1887.
A Sermon on Canvas – The Light of the World
“I regard “The Light of the World” as the finest picture ever painted by an Englishman. It is really a painted text, a sermon on canvas.
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.
When people read little, and were preached to little, the great artists were the great preachers of the world. Anybody could understand a painting but few could read books. In those times, art was held in high honour. Painters were then great servants of the Church.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock …
The whole is emblematic …
In “The Light of the World” the allegory chosen for illustration is that beautiful one in the Revelation, “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”. The picture is not, in the strict sense of the word, a pre-Raphaelite picture, though painted by a chief teacher of the school. The whole is emblematic, and upon the understanding of the emblems used, depends one’s appreciation of the success with which the painter has fulfilled his task.
On the head of Christ are two crowns: the earthly crown of his shame as well as his heavenly crown of glory. And the artist has made the thorny crown begin to bud and blossom, thereby symbolising that the crown which was thorny to Christ, put upon his head and spiritually used by him, did begin to blossom; and showing, also, that there is no thorn but God can make blossom.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet …
A light unto my path …
The robe has been found fault with. Some people think it is too straight. But it is a seamless robe, and this is the justification for its form. It symbolises the unbroken unity of the body of Christ, and surely this is better set forth thus than by any approach to graceful modern costume.
Here also is the jewelled Urim and Thummim, and the clasp typifying the bringing together of the Jewish religious system with the Christian.
Then there is the lamp carried by Christ. One has said that it is the lamp of conscience, another the lamp of the Church. It may possibly be intended as the lamp of the Word and the painter may have had in his mind the words of David, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path”. It may therefore be the lamp which guides the feet, and which, lit within the house of the soul, would be an abiding light. Probably the truest interpretation is that it is the lamp of the Church. The way in which the cords of the lamp are twisted round Christ’s wrist, is no doubt meant to typify the intense unity existing between him and the Church.
The door of the soul …
… it is long since it has been opened
The door of the soul is beautifully rendered. You can see it is long since it has been opened. The weeds have climbed where they never could have climbed had it been kept open; stains of rust are over the iron-work. Hovering over it we see, not a singing bird, but the bat – bird of night, bird of darkness, bird of ruin and neglect.
All the plants are admirably chosen. We have brambles, because a place overgrown with brambles is the acknowledged type of place to which the gardener has not come.
The fruit the trees have borne has fallen to the ground – natural fruit, uncared for and untended; but shone upon by the light from the lamp, the fruit looks as if it had come off a good tree.
The sadness on the face of Christ
Christ has knocked, and knocked in vain …
The sadness of the face of Christ is painful in the extreme, and the justification of this sadness is that Christ has knocked, and knocked in vain. I would call particular attention to the character of Christ’s knocking, as indicated by his half-open hand and listening aspect; in it there is nothing impatient or imperative; showing that, even at the eleventh hour he will knock woo-ingly and persuadingly as he did at first.
I believe that many a woman or man who has not heard a sermon for years, might see in this painting the whole meaning of the life of Christ, and the whole story of his own neglected soul.”
A British Victorian art movement founded in 1848.
There were more than 40 artists in, or associated with, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the more famous amongst them being: Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, Arthur Hughes, Ford Maddox Brown, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John William Waterhouse. The artists emphasized detail and intense colour in their paintings.
According to Randall Davis, writing c.1914, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was formed when Hunt, Millais and Rossetti were looking over a book of engravings of the frescoes in the Campo Santo at Pisa, Italy.
Image credits: Public domain images courtesy of wikipedia.org.