Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World inspired me in my journey of faith when I first saw it as a student in London in 1975 and continues to inspire me today. I frequently give those making a decision to follow Christ at our meetings a postcard of the painting.
Holman Hunt (1827–1910) was a Christian and in The Light of the World heproduced a painting that was openly and unmistakably Christian. The painting reveals a night scene set in an orchard, a figure wearing a crown of thorns and carrying a lantern knocks on a closed door with rusty hinges and overgrown with ivy. The title of the picture refers to Jesus’ words in John 8:12: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ The text behind the painting is that 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.’
Every detail in this picture counts. Christ is dressed, not just as the crowned king of Revelation, but also as an Old Testament priest bearing the breastplate of the twelve stones representing Israel (Exodus 28:30). The closed door lacks a handle and can only be opened from the inside. There are apples on the floor reminding us of the story of the Fall. There is a hint of light in the sky that Hunt himself said reflected Romans 13:12, ‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.’
This, then, is a painting intended to tell a message. In fact, Hunt said he painted the picture because he felt he was commanded to. How deeply he felt about what – or who – he had painted was revealed a century ago when, during repairs on the frame of the first version, the phrase ‘Don’t pass me by, Lord’ in Latin was discovered under the top of the frame. He seems to have been overcome by what he had painted.
There is much that could be said about this painting but let me draw your attention to three features about it that strike me as an evangelist.
The first feature of this painting is its reality. There is a painstaking solidity of the figure Hunt has painted; an authentic man standing in a real world. Behind this compelling physical and tangible realism is a spiritual one. What better picture could there be of the human heart without Christ than this closed door overgrown with weeds? What clearer depiction of the plight that people find themselves in than this painting’s night-time gloom? The Christian gospel is about a real Jesus come to deal with our real problems.
The second feature is its authority. It is a measure of Hunt’s skill as a painter that he has somehow managed to create a Christ who conveys both gentleness and humility with an extraordinary strength. So, while Jesus’ hand is knocking on the door there is no sense of hesitancy in his face, only authority. In this depiction of both ‘meekness and majesty’ Hunt echoes the biblical depiction of a Christ who was and is both servant and king. In this painting I see a Christ who both requires our allegiance and deserves our love.
The final striking feature is the opportunity depicted in the picture. One of the strengths of this painting is the extraordinary tension within it. Jesus is knocking on the door but his feet show that he is already on the point of turning away. The sky reveals that dawn is not far away. This is a decisive moment of opportunity and the picture poses a question: will the door of the heart be opened in time? Is this opportunity to receive the King going to be accepted or rejected? Of course, the bigger question the painting asks is this: what is your response? Will you open your heart to the one who is the light of the world?
Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World may be the greatest evangelistic sermon ever painted.
Have you opened the door of your life to Christ?
If you haven’t and want to, please pray this prayer:
Thank you, Jesus, that you are
knocking on the door of my life.
I open the door of my life now and invite you in.
Thank you for dying on the cross for me. I acknowledge all the wrong I have ever done and ask you to forgive me and cleanse me. Set me free from the past.
I ask you now to fill me with your Holy Spirit.
May I know your presence, peace and protection.
Thank you, Jesus.
(Scripture quotes are from the NIV.)
Revd Canon J.John