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Hunt, William Holman - VM - Saskia van Lier

William Holman Hunt: The Light of the World

The Closed Door

by Saskia van Lier

When William Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World, he had in mind a text from the Bible: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20) 

The painting colours the interpretation of the text. It is mysterious. It is dark and we are at a somewhat deserted place, where the weeds have not been removed from the ground in front of the back door in the wall. Christ, dressed in royal robes and holding a lantern, knocks at the door. It is often the case that Christ himself provides the light in this kind of paintings, for he himself is the light. If Holman Hunt had chosen to portray a luminous figure, then the picture would probably not have been half as mysterious. But now Christ (clearly recognisable) arrives to bring the light with a little lantern. His expression is somewhat sombre, and his face is barely lit up by the lantern. It seems as if he has been knocking and waiting endlessly – as if he no longer expects that someone is going to open the door.

Imagine that someone rings the doorbell late – too late – at night. You hear the most horrible stories about situations where people nevertheless open the door. I would not. If Christ were to return to earth, then I hope he will do that very clearly and visibly, recognisably, in a different way from his first coming.

The thought “I hope that I will open the door” or “I do hope that I am open to this” is a thought that belongs to Advent. In preparation to the coming of Christ we can meditate on his second coming. I once received a Christmas card from the diocese with the text: “We proclaim the twofold coming of Christ.” Just prior to the Advent season we traditionally hear the Dies Irae in the prayers of the divine office: the Day of Wrath, which causes us to repent and ponder how we will experience the Second Coming of Christ.

The fact that around Advent and Christmas we are confronted with his Second Coming is also clear from an old Catalan liturgical song: the Song of the Sibyl (el Cant de la Sibil-la) – click here to listen. The song and the accompanying drama are nowadays again performed in various Catalan churches, after not having been heard for centuries. It has even been promoted to Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (UNESCO 2010). It was sung just before the midnight Christmas service, i.e. just before the birth and coming of Christ.

The song sounds ominous. A sibyl, a heathen prophetess, often interpreted by a young boy, sings about the Last Judgment: Al jorn del judici, parrà qui haura fait servici (On the Day of Judgment the one who has served will be spared). The song keeps on continuing almost hypnotically about the terrors of the judgment.

This centuries-old song sounds the way Holman Hunt’s Christ looks: mysterious, perhaps also somewhat ominous. Many contemporary believers interpret the Bible text that led to Holman Hunt’s painting as positive and hopeful. They emphasize (as a matter-of-course?) the opening of the door and eating with Christ. The emphasis is then on choosing for Christ (as a matter-of-course?), leaving behind all the bad things and a renewed relationship with Christ.

But… what if in that dark night you don’t know that it is he who is standing at the door? And who can be completely open to Christ? Holman Hunt’s closed and overgrown door stands for the persons who keeps themselves closed, who cannot open themselves. After some introspection I am afraid I am one of those. But perhaps Christ is so persevering that he will even wait for me.

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William Holman Hunt: The Light of the World, 1851-1856, oil on canvass, 49.8 x 26.1 cm. Manchester Art Gallery.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was an English painter. In 1848 he founded the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ together with, among others, the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. Together this little group of young artists and poets, which comprised the brotherhood, turned against what they considered the mediocre taste of the middle class that was favoured too much by the Royal Academy of London. In the first years after 1848 the work by the Pre-Raphaelites often arose out of religious themes. In the early 50’s of the nineteenth century Millais and Rossetti addressed themselves to other subjects. Hunt was the most pious member of the brotherhood, he was the only member who continued to paint religious subjects, apart from a few exceptions. During his career Hunt more and more often resided outside of England. He regularly worked in Jerusalem, in order to have first-hand access to archaeological and historical details for his paintings with a Biblical theme. In 1905 he published his autobiography. In the same year he also wrote a book about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood entitled Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He died five years later in London.

Saskia van Lier is a scholar of religious studies and specializes in the use of Christian art in the liturgical space. She is a freelance lecturer. She also develops heritage projects for primary schools.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 13 December 2020