A reflection on William Holman Hunt’s painting.
William Holman Hunt painted The Light Of The World between 1851 and 1856. He based it on a short passage from The Bible’s book of Revelation, chapter 3, verse 20 which includes the words “Here I am, I stand at the door and knock”. It depicts Jesus as king with a crown and jewelled clasp on his cloak knocking at a door, carrying a lit lantern. It is interesting in a number of ways as it allegorical in nature but also contains ambiguity.
Jesus, to Christians at least, is the eponymous Light Of The World. There are multiple instances in The Bible where he is referred to by this epithet, and in John’s gospel (John 8:12 & 9:5) Jesus refers to himself twice this way. This is the first ambiguity I see in the painting. When Jesus himself is the light, he doesn’t need to carry a lantern, as in the picture, his halo perhaps being the source?
Jesus carries the lantern itself low, lighting his robe around knee level. A light to be followed, to guide the way, needs to be held high, so that it it not shielded from shedding its light in some directions. Certainly we can be led through darkness by a man carrying a lantern but it is the lantern we are actually able to see to follow, regardless of who carries it.
Jesus is depicted wearing a crown, however it is not shown a a single crown. We see a kingly crown about which is entwined a crown of thorns. Around His head is a halo, which could be the moon behind Him, if we didn’t look carefully enough to see it obscures the branches of some trees.
The door that Jesus is shown knocking at shows its hinges on the outside, with no apparent handle, suggesting that it can only be opened from within. The picture also depicts vines growing up the door and prolific weeds growing around the base, so it seems the door has not been used for a considerable period of time, months at least.
This depiction of the door has a surprisingly modern aspect. Consider how many 20th and 21st century houses are built with the main access at the rear and the front door actually getting minimal use.
Since it is to be presumed that someone lives in the dwelling, it is fair to assume there must be other access to within; there must be another door that we cannot see. Why then would Jesus knock at this door?
On the ground near Jesus’ feet there appear to be two apples. One green, perhaps freshly fallen or dropped, and one brown, maybe rotting. A reference maybe to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, eating from the tree of knowledge, beginning the fall of humanity from a state of grace.