The Light of the World

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The Light of the World

The Light of the World
Oil on canvas
William Holman-Hunt
About 1900-1904

"I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life". St John’s Gospel records Christ's proclamation which inspired Holman Hunt to paint this world famous image. This is the third version of the allegory painted by the artist. The first, of 1853, resides in Keeble College Oxford and the second, painted shortly afterwards, can be seen in the Manchester Art Gallery. The St Paul’s canvas was painted over fifty years later, with the assistance of Edward Robert Hughes, and it is thought to be the culmination of Holman-Hunt’s vision. 
 
This “sermon in a  frame” became the most travelled art work in history. On completion in 1904 it toured the globe visiting most of the major towns and cities in: Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. It has been seen by millions of people and is one of the best known works of its period. Purchased from Holman-Hunt by the industrialist Charles Booth it was donated to St Paul’s and dedicated at a service in June 1908. The choir sang psalm 119 which includes the verse : “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my path”. Today the painting forms an altarpiece in the Cathedral’s  Middlesex Chapel, where it serves as an object of devotion and contemplation. Conveying the message  : The saviour of the world is alive and will dwell in the hearts of those who admit him.
 
There are two lights shown in the picture. The lantern is the light of conscience and the light around the head of Christ is the light of salvation. The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened for the outside. There is no handle on the door, 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 permission to enter. The morning star appears near Christ, the dawn of a new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life. The writing beneath the picture, is taken from Revelation 3 ‘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 orchard of apple trees evokes several biblical references. The tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden was, according to legend, an apple tree and in some Christian traditions the wood of that tree was miraculously saved to construct the cross on which Christ was crucified. The fallen apples could symbolise the fall of man, original sin, and sometimes in Italian art can refer to redemption. Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum,  has noted that in the painting Christ not only knocks at the door; he is himself the door.
 
The extraordinary Renaissance style frame which surrounds and supports the painting is the work of two female artists: Hilda Herbert and a Miss Smith. Hilda studied at the National Art Training School in South Kensington and was friends with Holman-Hunt’s daughter, Gladys, and together they had made a cassone (or Italian marriage chest) using much the same materials as are used in the frame: wood; gesso ( a mixture of chalk, glue and white pigment) and gilding. Hilda wrote that the frame was ‘a work of months of patience, not only because it was a very long job, and though Holman-Hunt knew what he wanted, his sight was not good, his sketches were too vague for words: no – not for words, but for carving’.
 
Further reading:
Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 2008 
Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ, The National Gallery, London 2000
 
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