The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt (1854)

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, Keble College, Oxford

Revelation 3:20

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.


Countless altar calls have been based on this simple message:  Christ is knocking on the door of your heart, but you must open it and let Him in.  The masterpiece of our discussion today by William Holman Hunt depicts the scene and has become so ubiquitous as to be synonymous with the Bible verse.  This was exactly what Hunt intended.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

The painting depicts Christ, the Light of the World, knocking upon a wooden door. The setting is a dark night, and the mood is just a little forbidding. Hunt painted most of this work in his studio during the late-night hours so that he could mimic the effect of an environment lit by a lamp. That lamp, which Christ carries in his hand, provides the main source of light for the scene. Christ wears clothing that combines kingly dress and priestly dress, representing his two roles, and he has two crowns upon his head, which is illuminated by a halo, the only other source of light in the picture. One of these two crowns is the crown of thorns, reminding us of his sacrifice.

Christ is portrayed as a strong, sturdy figure, which was one of Hunt’s intentions. “In England,” he wrote, “spiritual figures are painted as if in a vapor. I had a further reason for making the figure more solid than I should have otherwise done,” as “it is Christ alive for ever more.”2 In other words, this is not a depiction of the earthly man, Jesus, but the risen Christ. There are clumps of weeds at his feet, partly obstructing the door, which represent the temptations and distractions of life that keep us locked away inside ourselves and can separate us from God. The door itself is shut tight, illustrating that our hearts and minds are closed to him. And the door has no latch, no doorknob, and no keyhole. This is a door that can only be opened from the inside. To add to the urgency of the message, Hunt shows the feet of Jesus turned sideways, as if he is preparing to leave because entry has been denied him.

The Light of the World was a special painting to its creator, who directly attributed it to an inspiration from God: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by divine command, and not simply as a good subject.” Because it has been so widely disseminated, some version of this iconic image is what often settles into our minds when we encounter the Scripture verse about the One who stands at the door and knocks.

How does one open the door of his heart?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt

(born April 2, 1827, London, Eng.—died Sept. 7, 1910, London) British artist and prominent member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His style is characterized by clear, hard colour, brilliant lighting, and careful delineation of detail.

In 1843 Hunt entered the Royal Academy schools where he met his lifelong friend, the painter John Everett Millais. Public opinion was at first hostile toward Hunt; but, in 1854 “The Light of the World” (Keble College, Oxford), an allegory of Christ knocking at the door of the human soul, was championed by John Ruskin and brought Hunt his first public success. In 1854 Hunt began a two-year visit to Syria and Palestine, where he completed in 1855 “The Scapegoat,” a painting depicting an outcast animal on the shores of the Dead Sea. Among the most important of his later paintings are “The Triumph of the Innocents” (two versions: 1884, Tate Gallery, London; 1885, Liverpool), “May Morning on Magdalen Tower” (1889; Lady Lever Art Gallery), and “The Miracle of the Sacred Fire” (1898), finished just before his sight began to fail.

The Stable, Door, and Garden

Three key biblical images are invoked by C.S. Lewis throughout the Narniad: the stable, the door, and the garden. The stable comes from the Nativity of Jesus, though it is used initially, in The Last Battle, in the context of housing the anti-Christ! However, despite its use it becomes the door/gateway to eternity for the redeemed but also the door/gateway to hell for the damned as—with the eschatological destruction of Narnia—the stable mutates into a “doorway” for all of Narnia to pass through to face Aslan’s judgment.

Lewis uses the door, not only here, but in several of his other writings, as a symbol for the reality we have always longed for and for which Lewis, as we have seen, longed all his life. We long to be inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside … to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache. Someday … pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life.33

In The Last Battle—in response to puzzlement by her peers commenting on how the stable seems bigger inside than outside, and how the stable as a gateway appears different when seen from inside than when contemplated from outside—Lucy notes, with reference to the nativity of the Christ, “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

Such a door/gateway—often merely three timbers (two posts and a cross-beam)—initiated by Aslan, forms the means of access between the worlds. In The Silver Chair Jill and Eustace pass through an ordinary door in a garden wall and find themselves in Aslan’s country.35 It is used for the return of the Pevensie children from Narnia back to England (Prince Caspian).36 In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly secretly and inadvertently enter Uncle Andrew’s study and laboratory, and therefore into danger and other worlds, through a disused attic door.37 In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy initially enters Narnia through the wardrobe door.38 Sammons notes how Lewis’s imagery is biblically grounded: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). In The Last Battle, when the redeemed pass through the eschatological door/gateway that was formerly the stable they do find themselves in rich pastures, being beckoned to come further up and further in.39 As they do, Lewis uses the garden motif, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1–3) for the rich verdant land. The garden image is used often in the Narniad—in The Magician’s Nephew, the tree from which Digory takes a silver apple,40 and in places of rest amidst a challenging journey in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,41 also, in The Horse and his Boy, as staging posts on a perilous escape from Calormen.42 The door/gateway is a profound symbol, evoking a passing through, a change of state, an enabling of redemption. It also exemplifies a holding-out, the human propensity to keep God at bay. Jesus seeks entry, he knocks on the door, but we can refuse to open-up: “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” (Rev. 3:20). This verse formed the basis of William Holman Hunt’s (1827–1910) famous painting, “The Light of the World,” of Jesus standing in an overgrown garden, knocking on the door, seeking entry. Hunt wrote, “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.’ ”44 Jesus, the eternal Christ, holds in his hand a lantern giving the only light to the world.45 Millions of reproductions graced the homes of Lewis’s parents’ generation as the original hung in Keble College Chapel, in Lewis’s Oxford (with painted copies in St Paul’s Cathedral and numerous galleries and museums).

Sources and Resources

P. H. Brazier, C. S. Lewis—On the Christ of a Religious Economy: I. Creation and Sub-Creation, vol. 3.1, C. S. Lewis: Revelation and the Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 179–181.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

Adams, Steven. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Quintet, 1988.

des Cars, Laurence. The Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism. New York: Abrams, 2000.

Lochnan, Katharine, and Carol Jacobi, eds. Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision. Ontario, Canada: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008.

Robinson, Michael. The Pre-Raphaelites: Their Lives and Works in 500 Images. Leistershire, UK: Lorenz Books, 2012.

[F. G. Stephens,] William Holman Hunt and his Works (1860); A. *Meynell and F. W. *Farrar, William Holman Hunt: His Life and Work (1893). Lives by A. C. Gissing (London, 1936) and A. C. Amor (ibid., 1989). William Holman Hunt: An Exhibition arranged by the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, March–April 1969; Victoria and Albert Museum, May–June 1969 (Liverpool, 1969), with introd. by M. Bennett. G. P. Landow, William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1979); id., ‘Shadows Cast by The Light of the World: William Holman Hunt’s Religious Paintings, 1893–1905’, Art Bulletin: A Quarterly published by the College Art Association of America, 65 (1983), pp. 471–84. J. Maas, Holman Hunt and The Light of the World (1984). W. Armstrong in DNB, 1901–1911, 2, pp. 323–8.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 810.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today