Holman Hunt’s Oxford Masterpiece

With Barry Whitehouse

Holman Hunt’s Oxford Masterpiece

Arguably one of the most used pieces of art work to symbolise Christianity .

With three versions of this painting and innumerable engravings after the painting, ‘The Light of the World’ is truly a masterpiece of the Victorian era. The original, painted at night in a makeshift hut at Worcester Park Farm in Surrey, is now in a side room off the large chapel at Keble College, Oxford.

The subject matter is based on the scripture of Revelation 3:20 “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

 Yet the title is taken from a different scripture from the book of John: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.”

Was William Holman Hunt the sort of man that would be given a Divine command? What was he like as a person?

William Holman Hunt was born in 1827. After eventually entering the Royal Academy art schools, having initially been rejected, Hunt rebelled against the influence of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of which Hunt was a founder member, sought to revitalise art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to truth. This religious approach was influenced by the spiritual qualities of medieval art, in opposition to the alleged rationalism of the Renaissance embodied by Raphael.

After a failed engagement to his model Annie Miller, he married Fanny Waugh, who also later modelled for him. His second wife, Edith, was Fanny’s sister. At this time it was illegal in Britain to marry one’s deceased wife’s sister, so Hunt was forced to travel abroad to marry her. This led to a serious rift with other family members, notably his former Pre-Raphaelite colleague Thomas Woolner, who had once been in love with Fanny and had married Alice, the third sister of Fanny and Edith. It is safe to say that it was not a case of art imitating life for Hunt at all! His works were not initially successful, and were widely attacked in the art press for their alleged clumsiness and ugliness.

Is there more to ‘The Light of the World’ than meets the eye?

It is an allegorical painting by representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door. The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing “the obstinately shut mind”
The door Christ is knocking at is that of the human soul, whose entrance is choked with weeds. The bat flying around in the darkness is a symbol of ignorance. The stars and crescents on the lantern show Jesus is the king of the whole world. Jesus wears a crown of thorns to remind us of his death on the cross.

Hunt painted much of it during the night outdoors in the moonlight, to make it a convincing nocturnal scene, but he wanted the figure of Christ to look supernatural. He played with the different sources of light, the halo, the lantern and the symbolic light of dawn to suggest Christ brings light into a darkened world. It truly is a remarkable painting. Towards the end of his life, Hunt painted a life-size version of this scene which was hung in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, after a world tour where the picture drew large crowds.