The Light fantastic; Loved but neglected painting of Jesus became a touchstone of mass culture
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 December 2007)

A century ago The Light of the World, a painting of Jesus Christ by Holman Hunt, was the most popular picture in the British Empire. Hunt's reputation has more or less disappeared but his best-known work still evokes another age, when a single image could touch masses of people.

The last time I thought much about The Light of the World was in the 1950s when an evangelical Christian I worked with told me it was the greatest picture ever painted. He felt that as an art critic I should have this essential information. The subject comes up now because Katharine Lochnan, the distinguished curator, is preparing a historical show focused on The Light of the World, to appear in early 2009 in Frank Gehry's new version of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Light was the most popular product of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement founded by Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and several others. They wanted to reform art by rejecting the mechanistic approach of the Mannerists -- successors to Raphael. Hunt began painting The Light of the World in 1851, inspired by a passage in Revelations and believing that he was following a divine command. Over the years he produced three versions; the first is now at Keeble College, Oxford, the second in the Manchester Art Gallery, the third in St. Paul's Cathedral.

All of them show Christ bringing salvation to a broken world by knocking on the door of a house that's been neglected. In his hand he holds a lamp, symbolizing revelation. The door stands for the closed conscience of the world and untended plants represent chaos.

A strange light, possibly celestial, fills most of the picture. Hunt worked on it at night, sometimes by moonlight. Though he wanted to create up-to-date Christian art, he dressed Jesus in a golden ecclesiastical robe. That may be one reason Protestants criticized the picture as too Catholic. John Ruskin, the most eminent art critic of the age, defended Hunt's symbolism.

Engraving, the mass visual medium of the age, carried the image to a large audience. In 1860, when a black and white engraving of the picture first appeared, the Illustrated London News called it "one of the most perfect things modern art has produced." It was widely copied, and soon the image was in thousands of homes and churches across Britain.

Working its way into the public subconscious, Hunt's version of Jesus became the English equivalent of a Russian icon. It inspired a multitude of poems and became the subject of an endless stream of hymns.

For Protestants in several countries, it was inescapable. Placed in nurseries, it was often the first art in the life of a child.

In 1905 the third version, on which Hunt needed assistance because he was losing his sight, set off on a Commonwealth tour, beginning with Halifax. Usually it was shown all by itself, with no other pictures to detract from its majesty. Halifax showed it at the Masonic Hall, Ottawa at the Goldsmiths' Hall on Sparks Street. In Toronto it was given a room of its own in the Ontario Society of Artists gallery on King Street. There (according to Jeremy Maas's book, Holman Hunt and 'The light of the world,' published in 1984) it "was draped with crimson, and a strong light was thrown on it, while the rest of the room was plunged into semi-darkness." That was typical: A visit by this painting was as much a religious as an artistic event.

Eastern Canada was not quite as excited as Hunt's admirers might have desired, although some Christians were deeply impressed. Nine years later, when the huge Timothy Eaton Memorial Church was built in Toronto, one of its stained-glass windows reproduced The Light of the World, with spotlights outside the church placed to emphasize the lantern in Christ's hand. Churches across Canada used the same image.

As it turned out, Australians loved it best. According to the people running the tour, it was viewed by four-fifths of Australia's five million residents. In Melbourne in 1906 visitors stampeded, anxious to see it the moment it was open to the public. But if the crowd was rowdy at first, Maas writes, soon "an air of reverential awe descended on the gathering." Men removed their hats, voices fell to a whisper. Some people stood or sat gazing at it for hours. A few visitors fainted. Later it toured South Africa and in 1907 returned in triumph to Britain and its final destination, St. Paul's.

The installation in 1908 was celebrated with a special service at which the passage from Revelations that inspired Hunt ("Behold, I stand at the door, and knock...") was read. Hunt stood before his painting, in tears.

When he died two years later, in September, 1910, The Times suggested his remains be interred in St. Paul's. His ashes were carried into the cathedral by Hunt's young Canadian friend, Charles Trick Currelly, who would later become the great assembler of Chinese art for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They rest now beside those of Christopher Wren, Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner, three great figures whose reputations have long outlived Hunt's.

While his reputation as an artist declined, his celebrity status and the messages in his work made him a favourite reference point for writers. In Lawrence Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, a pious old woman hangs Hunt reproductions on her walls. In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh refers to Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, in which an innocent young woman suddenly leaps up from the lap of her boyfriend because she remembers that what she's doing is sinful. Brian Aldiss's science-fiction novel Report On Probability A concerns three characters who secretly watch a house from separate vantage points while they themselves are observed by creatures in another world. They all wonder about the picture in the house, Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, in which a shepherd neglects his duty to seduce a maiden. The extraterrestrials speculate that perhaps the painting is a form of television depicting a world where time has stopped.

Hardly anyone today admires The Light of the World as art but it remains a historic moment in mass culture, the beginning of the great age of reproduction, the first image that millions of people knew intimately, and often loved.

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