In my view, William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ presents Christ’s two natures particularly effectively, through Hunt’s style of symbolic realism. Hunt was part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which was strongly influenced by early Renaissance paintings, and aimed to create images which showed real, not idealised or stylised, people – reminding us of the human nature of Christ. Although clearly not an accurate depiction of what Christ would have looked like while on Earth, the meticulous attention to detail enables us as viewers to see Christ as a man, as somebody that we could talk to and engage with. This enables us to better focus on the key message and symbolism of the painting – we do not have to create an image of Christ in our own minds, therefore we do not linger too much on his appearance, but are able to focus instead on the compositional and pictorial symbolism of the painting.
To get the most from viewing this painting, it is key to understand the nature of the symbolism in and to appreciate how Hunt presented this symbolism. Firstly, the painting (the whole canvas) is an allegory – it is not designed to be a depiction of an event in the life of Christ while on earth nor a depiction of what may be to come. The symbolism is also of a different kind – whereas previously symbolism used in religious works of art often required some prior knowledge and understanding of the key tenets of Christianity, Hunt used objects which naturally spoke of their symbolism; Hunt created an image which he hoped would be readily accessible and understandable to all viewers.
So why did Hunt create ‘The Light of the World’? Hunt himself underwent a deeply moving religious conversion and he aimed to present the atmosphere and feeling of this conversion in ‘The Light of the World’. He aimed to present an image of Christ which would unite Christians around the world, although Hunt himself was humble about it. He had a close and personal relationship with Christ and the resulting work is a realisation of this close relationship. Although striving to create something aesthetically pleasing, he clearly felt that he was presenting Christ in a way which would be pleasing to the divine, the audience of who’s approval he most strongly desired.
The painting includes many symbols, and the key symbol, to my mind, is that of the shut door, representing our hearts. It links inextricably to the inscription underneath from Revelations 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me”. It strikes me that just as Christ shows a patient desire in the painting to commune with us and to be let into our hearts, Hunt also shared this vision, almost pleading with the world to accept the true Christ as a man and as a divine creation in their hearts.
The painting was, at first, subject to criticism. John Ruskin, in his letter to The Times, commented that upon first viewing “Few stopped to look at it, and those who did almost invariably with some contemptuous expression.” To us today, the symbolism of the painting may be clear, however it seems for early Victorian audiences, this completely revolutionary depiction of Christ was too far from the typically understood presentations of Him – particularly presentations of Jesus as a man who was also divine, rather than as, above all, a divine king.
While some critics argued that ‘The Light of the World’ did not depict Jesus in an accurate way to the way that he would have been on earth, I believe that the realism of the painting, its fastidious attention to detail, even down to Hunt commissioning the lantern in the painting to be created so that he could paint it more accurately, better enables us to feel the experience of Hunt during his religious conversion. We are able to understand the overwhelming emotions that Hunt felt and to understand his feeling of a close connection with the divine as Jesus looks directly at us in hopeful anticipation. Hunt painted by moonlight to give a more realistic vision of moonlight in the painting, this enables viewers to capture the peaceful sense of his conversion and to better understand the peace that he felt knowing that Christ was with him. Moreover, Hunt felt that he had a duty to present God’s creation in the most realistic way possible as an expression of his praise, so that viewers may also be “fascinated by the perfection of the works of the Great Author of all”.
The key to unlocking this painting ultimately lies in not perceiving it to be a historically accurate picture, but to view it as, “a sermon in a frame”. Ultimately, we should see it as a presentation of our relationship with Christ – He is the waiting one, it is us that have to answer the door to let Him in. I believe that this painting incorporates both the fully divine and the fully human nature of Christ – he is a man, surrounded by objects of the Earth, however the symbolism and the metaphorical meaning of the Earthly objects enables us to see Christ’s divine nature. There is a sense of timelessness too, which reminds us of Christ’s eternal and ever-living nature, however the timeless quality of the painting also makes it consistently relevant for all generations – it still carries a powerful message about our relationship with Christ – just as Christ still has a powerful message for all those who will open their hearts to Him. Like those who flocked to see this painting on its world tour, we must decide whether to see Christ around us in our everyday lives.
World” (William Holman Hunt, 1854)