16 April 2024

Returning to the chapel
in Keble College, Oxford,
to see Holman Hunt’s
‘The Light of the World’

‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) in a side chapel in Keble College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I have visited Keble College, Oxford, a number of times recently. When I was in Oxford last week, I returned to the chapel in Keble College to see The Light of the World, a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) depicting Christ about to knock at an overgrown and long-unopened door.

Christ stands in front of a door covered in growth holding a light and waiting patiently to enter. There is no handle on the door, and he can enter only when the person inside opens the door. The work is inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (Revelation 3: 20).

This is my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. Copies of it hang in churches and vestries, rectories and vicarages, church halls and homes, throughout the Anglican Communion. It is the first image of Christ I remember being shown as a small child by my grandmother in her house near Cappoquin, Co Waterford.

Despite the enduring popularity of this painting, few know what the artist was trying to say or the spiritual depths he searched as he worked on this painting. Yet it is regarded by many as the most important and culturally influential rendering of Christ of its time and it remains one of the great artistic expressions of Anglican spirituality.

Holman 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. For example, 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 received his middle name through a clerical error at his baptism in Saint Mary’s Church, Ewell, near Epsom. He was raised in Cheapside in an evangelical family, and spent much time in his childhood 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, while he was still in his early 20s. It was harshly criticised when it was displayed in 1853, but John Ruskin defended Hunt and curiosity about the painting reached such a level 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, he did much of this painting at night.

The painting is in oil on canvas, and Hunt is said to have painted it at night in a makeshift hut at Worcester Park Farm in Surrey and in the garden of the Oxford University Press. It has been suggested that he found the dawn light he needed outside Bethlehem on one of his visits to the Middle East.

The painting is full of symbolic meaning, with the contrast between light and dark, and between luxuriant, abundant plants and the thorns and weeds. Christ, the Light of the World (John 8: 12), is 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).

In this passage, Saint John was writing of the Church in Laodicea, which was out of fellowship with Christ and the Church.

There are two lights in the picture: the lantern is the light of conscience and the light around Christ’s head is the light of salvation; the bright light over the figure has also been interpreted as the morning star, the dawn of the new day.

Hunt later told the banker and writer Edward Clodd (1840-1930) that he used a cast from a clay model he had made with a variety of male sitters, including his father, Millais and John Capper. Once he had ‘secured the male character in the head’, Christina Rossetti then sat for the head.

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. ‘Your 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 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.

The shut door has no latch, no handle, no keyhole – it can only be opened from inside. The ironwork 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 represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. The door has no handle, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking for permission to enter.

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. The autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life. Yet the light from the lamp shows this fruit has come from a good tree.

The words below the picture, which are difficult to read, are from Revelation 3: 20: ‘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 Light of the World’ is in the side chapel in Keble College designed by John Thomas Micklethwaite (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854, before being acquired by Thomas Combe (1796-1872), Printer to the University of Oxford, and his wife Martha. Combe was a supporter of the Oxford Movement and a patron of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Thomas and Martha Combes were a generation older than the Pre-Raphaelite artists, but with no children of their own they became like surrogate parents to the young artists, especially Holman Hunt and Millais. The young artists would come and stay at their home in Oxford while they supported them by buying and commissioning works.

The Combes funded the building of Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho, Oxford, and the patronage was given to Keble College.

The painting gave rise to much popular devotion in the late Victorian period and inspired several musical works, including Arthur Sullivan’s 1873 oratorio The Light of the World. Engraved reproductions were bought for nurseries, schools and church buildings.

Thomas Combe died in 1872, and a year later his widow Martha Combes (1806-1893) donated the painting to Keble College on the understanding that it would hang in the college chapel, which was built in 1873-1876.

However, William Butterfield (1814-1900), the architect of Keble College and the architect of the Oxford Movement, was opposed to the painting hanging in the chapel and made no provision for it in his designs.

When the college library opened in 1878, Hunt’s painting was placed there. It was moved to its present position after the side chapel was built to accommodate it in 1892-1895 by another architect, John Thomas Micklethwaite (1843-1906), who had a long association with Westminster Abbey.

Hunt painted a second, smaller version between 1851 and 1856. This was bought by Manchester City Art Gallery in 1912 and has been on display there ever since. There are small differences between the first and second versions, such as the angle of the gaze, and the drape of the corner of the red cloak.

Keble College was charging a fee to view his picture, and so Hunt was persuaded to paint yet another, larger, life-sized, version towards the end of his life. He began working on it in about 1900 and finished it in 1904. Due to his increasing infirmity and glaucoma, he was assisted in completing this version by the painter Edward Robert Hughes, who also assisted with Hunt’s version of The Lady of Shalott. The third version of The Light of the World diverges more from the original ithan the second one.

This third version was sold on condition that it first toured the world to preach the Gospel and that the purchaser provided cheap colour reproductions. The social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) bought the painting in 1904 and donated it to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. It drew large crowds when it went on a world tour in 1905-1907, and it was said that four-fifths of Australia’s population viewed it. It was dedicated in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1908.

The Light of the World, in its three versions, in Oxford, Manchester and London, remains ‘a painted text, a sermon on canvas.’

Willem Key’s ‘The Deposition’ in the side chapel in Keble College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Two other works of art in the side chapel in Keble College are also worth seeing. On the left wall is The Deposition, or The Dead Christ Mourned by his Mother, by the Flemish Renaissance painter Willem Key (1516-1568). It was presented to the college in memory of its previous owner, Dr William Hatchett-Jackson, the father of one of the tutors.

The icon of the Holy Trinity in the side chapel was given to Keble College by its author, Ian Knowles, in gratitude for his time as an undergraduate at Keble and as a sign of his continuing support.

Ian is the principal of the Bethlehem Icon School, part of the Bethlehem Icon Centre that he founded in 2012, and I am familiar with his icons in Lichfield Cathedral and in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth.

William Butterfield (1814-1900), the architect of Keble College, opposed Holman Hunt’s painting hanging in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
17, 16 April 2024

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35) … Eucharistic bread being prepared for the Liturgy early on a Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost. The week began yesterday with the Third Sunday of Easter (Easter III). Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (16 April) recalls the life and work of Isabella Gilmore (1842-1923), Deaconess. A sister of William Morris, she was a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in London. In 1886, Bishop Thorold of Rochester asked her to pioneer deaconess work in his diocese, and together they planned an Order of Deaconesses.

A training house on Clapham Common was later called Gilmore House in her memory. Over 19 years of service, she trained head deaconesses for at least seven other dioceses. She retired in 1906 and died on 16 April 1923.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’ (John 6: 31) … a ‘Miner’s Loaf’ with a Cornish Cross on a market stall in Truro (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 30-35 (NRSVA):

30 So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat”.’ 32 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34 They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

‘Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness’ (John 6: 31) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 16 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘The effect of Climate Change in the Solomon Islands.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Kate Komepwaisiho, Trustee of the Melanesian Mission.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (16 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the beauty of your creation and for all the blessings in our lives.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples
with the sight of the risen Lord:
give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Living God,
your Son made himself known to his disciples
in the breaking of bread:
open the eyes of our faith,
that we may see him in all his redeeming work;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope:
strengthen us to proclaim your risen life
and fill us with your peace,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Supper at Emmaus (left) and the Apostle Thomas (right) in a window in Christ Church, Leomansley, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org