28 January 2008
The Light of the World: art as spirituality
Earlier this month, I was in London with my elder son, Jamie. We attended Choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey and visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to climb the dome and to see William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (right).
Copies of this painting hang in vestries, rectories and homes throughout the Anglican Communion. It is the first image of Christ I remember being presented with as a small child by my grandmother. Despite the popularity of the painting, few know what the artist was trying to say or the spiritual depths he searched as he worked on this painting. Yet it remains one of the great artistic expressions of Anglican spirituality.
Hunt was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – young artists and poets who reacted vigorously against “the frivolous art of the day,” including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina Rossetti. Their paintings of religious or romantic subjects were clear and sharply focused. They believed that art is essentially spiritual in character and that mediaeval culture had a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras. But their work often caused offence. When Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais was exhibited in 1850, it was condemned as blasphemous. Charles Dickens claimed it made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers with contorted, absurd poses.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) received his middle name through a clerical error at his baptism in Saint Mary’s, Ewell, near Epsom. He was raised in Cheapside in an evangelical family, where he spent much time reading the Bible. He left school at 12, but persuaded his parents to send him to the Royal Academy Schools to train as a painter.
Hunt began painting The Light of the World in 1851. When it was displayed in 1853 it was harshly criticised, but John Ruskin defended Hunt and curiosity about the painting reached such a pitch that it went on a national tour.
Hunt later recalled: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.” To achieve realism, Hunt did much of this painting at night by the light of a lamp in Ewell, where he was baptised.
The work is full of symbolic meaning, with the contrast between light and dark, and between luxuriant, abundant plants and the thorns and weeds. The painting shows Christ, the Light of the World (John 8: 12), knocking on an overgrown and long-unopened door. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3: 20). Saint John was writing of the Church in Laodicea, which was out of fellowship with Christ and the Church. One person can be open that door and let Christ in. But Hunt also wanted to convey the evangelical message that Christ comes to a sinful world and stands at the door of my heart.
Christ’s head bears two crowns: the earthly crown of shame and his heavenly crown of glory. The thorny crown is beginning to bud and blossom. These are not thorns from a hawthorn hedge, or briars from an overgrown garden. These are thorns from branches thrown by soldiers in Palestine on a barrack-room brazier, with spikes three to four inches long, twisted into a rough-and-ready crown set firmly on Christ’s head, each sharp spike drawing blood.
Christ’s loving eyes look directly at you wherever you stand, but the sadness of his face is painful. His listening aspect shows that even at the eleventh hour he knocks hoping for an answer. His hands are nail-pierced, his half-open right hand is raised in blessing, but his feet are turned away, as if he is about to go, for he has been knocking and left waiting.
For Christ’s royal mantle, Hunt draped his mother’s best tablecloth around his model, but the symbolism was lost on many. Christ who knocks at the door invites us to his table and to the heavenly banquet. The mantle might be a cope, linking this scene with the eschatological promise in the Eucharist. This cope or mantle is secured by the Urim and Thummim, clasped by the Cross in a symbol of Judaism and Christianity being brought together. The robe is seamless, symbolising the unity of the body of Christ.
Christ’s lantern lights up his features, the doorway, and the way ahead. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119: 105). To those living in darkness, Christ is waiting to enter their lives. The cords of the lamp, twisted around Christ’s wrist, symbolise the intense unity between Christ and the Church.
The shut door has no latch, no handle, no keyhole – it can only be opened from inside. The iron-work is rusted, for it is long since the door has been opened. The door to our hearts has to be opened from within, through repentance and faith. The door is overgrown with dead weeds and trailing ivy that would not be there if the door had been kept open. All the plants have been overtaken by brambles, because this a place to which the gardener has not come.
Above flies a bat, blind and unable to see in the darkness, long associated with ruin and neglect. Below, the fruit has fallen to the ground and some are rotten. Yet the light from the lamp shows this fruit has come from a good tree.
The painting was moved to Keble College, Oxford, and became so popular that Hunt was asked to paint a larger copy. This second version was sold on condition that it toured the world to preach the Gospel and that the purchaser provided cheap colour reproductions. After travelling the world, the second version was presented to Saint Paul's Cathedral in 1904. It remains “a painted text, a sermon on canvas.”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay first appeared in the Community Review (Church of Ireland Theological College) in January 2008, and draws on lecture notes used on the course “Sprituality for Today.”