William Holman Hunt’s Light of the World
(Jer.33:14-16; Thess.3:12-4:2; Lk.21:25-28, 34-36)
Today, on the second Sunday of Advent, let’s explore the famous painting, The Light of the World, by the British artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910).
He painted three versions of this work. The last one, completed in 1904, is now in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. [i] [ii]
This picture is set in an orchard at night, and a man wearing a crown and holding a lantern is knocking on a door, waiting for it to open. It’s Jesus Christ, of course, and he wants to enter. But the door is firmly shut and it’s overgrown with weeds.
This door represents our hearts and minds, which are obstinately closed, and the weeds symbolise our sins. The door has no handle, no keyhole, no external lock. It can only be opened from within, but the weeds and rusty hinges tell us that it’s rarely, if ever, opened.
Look at Jesus’ face: he is kind and gentle, and his eyes are looking directly at you, wherever you are. But there’s also a hint of sadness, as he waits patiently for a reply. And notice his hands: they’ve been pierced by nails.
There are three light sources in this picture. Behind Jesus, moonlight is shining through the trees and promising the dawn of a new day. It reminds us of St Paul’s words: ‘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’ (Rom.13:12).
Light is also shining from Jesus’ halo, signifying his holiness and presence as the Light of Truth. And the bright lantern symbolises the Light of Christ, who shows us the way (Jn.8:12). As the psalmist says, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps.119:105).
But do you see the holes atop the lantern? The six-pointed stars and the crescent moons symbolise Judaism and Islam, and tell us that Jesus is the light for all nations. He’s knocking on everyone’s door.
The chain affixing the lantern to Jesus’ wrist symbolises his commitment to his Church and to each of us personally.
Jesus is wearing a long white robe, and he has a clasp on his cloak, like the breastplate of a Jewish Temple high priest. Every year the high priest performed a sacrifice for the people’s sins. This clasp has a cross on it, demonstrating the link between Judaism and Christianity.
Now, Jesus’ cloak and the door have similar colours. This reminds us that Jesus is also a doorway; he’s the gateway to peace and eternal life (Jn.10.7).
On Jesus’ head are two crowns: one of thorns, the other of gold. The thorns symbolise his passion, death and resurrection, and the gold his heavenly glory. But notice the thorns: they are beginning to bud and blossom. They remind us that new life flows from Christ’s sacrifice, and hope can always be found, even in the darkest of places.
Behind Jesus is a tangle of trees. They point to Adam and Eve’s Original Sin, and the tree on which Jesus died. But they also symbolise our own family trees, which are waiting to be lit up and filled with divine life.
Above the door is a bat, blind and flitting about in the darkness. It symbolises worldly ignorance, ruin and neglect. And the decaying fruit on the ground represents life wasted without Jesus.
The title of this painting comes from Jesus’ words: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (Jn.8:12).
And the words on the lower frame come from Revelation 3:20: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me’.
After this painting was completed in 1904, it was taken on a world tour, attracting huge crowds. In Australia, some 80% of the population reportedly saw it, at the rate of 100 people every minute. [iii] [iv] [v]
When the first version of this painting was sent for repairs, the restorers removed the frame and found the words ‘Don’t pass me by, Lord’ written underneath in Latin. [vi]
And when the newest version was sent to be cleaned, they found a message under its frame, too. The artist had written: ‘Forgive me, Lord Jesus, that I kept you waiting so long!’ [vii]
Are we, too, making Jesus wait too long?
Notice Jesus’ feet. It looks like he’s starting to turn and walk away. Could he be giving up?
One day, even Jesus will stop waiting for us.
[i] William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Light of the World (c.1900-04), Oil on canvas, St Paul’s, London.
[vii] Gary L Carver, Gotta Minute? CSS Publishing Co, Lima OH. 2020:231.