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“The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt (1851-53)

Today’s Manchester picture to enjoy while the Gallery is closed and we can’t take you on art tours: “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt (1851-53).

Manchester Art Gallery owns one of three versions of William Holman Hunt’s 1856 Pre-Raphaelite work “The Light of the World”. The others are in Keble College, Oxford, and the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. Yes, it may be unusual to have more than one version of a painting, but what is even more unusual about the Manchester one is that it may well not be by Hunt, but by his pupil Fred Stephens.

“The Light of the World” shows Christ knocking at the door, allegorically knocking at the human soul. He must strive to enter a world where he is ignored. The door has no handle so can only be opened from the inside, by the individual letting Christ in.

The idea comes 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.”

He his holding a lantern and is bringing light into the world, for which we must turn to John 8:12.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Hunt explained with lyrical effusiveness fifty years after painting it: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject. The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing the obstinately shut mind, the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrances of sloth; the orchard the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul. The music of the still small voice was the summons to the sluggard to awaken and become a zealous labourer under the Divine Master; the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance; the kingly and priestly dress of Christ, the sign of His reign over the body and the soul, to them who could give their allegiance to Him and acknowledge God’s overrule.

In making it a night scene, lit mainly by the lantern carried by Christ, I had followed metaphorical explanation in the Psalms: ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’”

Hunt wanted everything to look supernatural and painted it by moonlight to get the right effect. The setting is a friend’s house in Homerton, north-east London, depicted as an orchard; maybe an orchard of apple trees, symbolising the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. There are fallen apples to symbolise the Fall of man. Some believe the wood of the apple tree was used to construct the cross on which Christ was crucified?

In the painting, Jesus’ hair is based on that of Lizzie Siddall, a favourite muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. The face is that of another woman of their circle, the romantic poet Christina Rossetti. The robe is an old tablecloth. The lantern was made to Hunt’s design and is on display in the same room as the painting in Manchester Art Gallery.

“The Light of the World” became what was for then the most travelled painting in history. It went to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and to Australia where it was estimated some 4/5ths of the population saw it. Sales of reproductions were immense. In June 1908 the St Paul’s version was unveiled at a service during which the choir sang Psalm 119: “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my path”.

According to John Ruskin, the influential critic whose ideas gave birth to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the picture was “the most perfect instance of expressional purpose with technical power which the world has yet produced.” Van Gogh regarded it as the supreme depiction of Christ.