William Hunt’s The Light of the World: The Story Behind the Painting

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt is one of the most celebrated portrayals of Christ ever painted. At the time Hunt painted his first version of it, England was experiencing religious revival. What inspired Hunt to paint it? What was the significance of each of the objects he used, and how did the painting influence his generation?

One day in 1851 as Hunt meditated on Revelation 3:20, a picture haunted him: Christ carrying a lit lantern, knocking at the door choked with weeds during the predawn darkness. Hunt felt God wanted him to paint this picture.

To express hi vision, he used objects with profound meaning and symbolism. Hunt painted a night scene of an orchard, an analogy of the sleeping soul. The orchard represented the nourishment available to the soul. Ripened apples ready for harvest, are depicted in the lower right side of the picture. A bat flitting around in the darkness symbolizes ignorance.

As a model for Christ’s face, Hunt chose a woman for gravity and sweetness of expression. But for the figure of Christ, he used a male model. Christ’s jeweled robe and breastplate depicted his royal and priestly role and his reign over the body and soul that give allegiance to him. Hunt searched for a suitable material from a local linen draper for Christ’s robe, but finally used a tablecloth altered by a tailor. It was white, symbolizing the Holy Spirit within.

A metalworker formed the heptagonal, domed lantern that served as a model for Hunt. Truth, symbolized by the lamp, shines despite obstacles. A closed rusty-hinged door represents the obstinately shut mind; the weeds suggest that the person inside has failed to look for truth. Christ is the bearer of light to the sinner behind the door. There is no handle on the door, because the human heart must be opened by the person inside.

In 1853 Hunt finished the painting he had envisioned and it was displayed in the Royal Academy in London. At first, religious viewers disliked the painting because they thought it reprehensive that Christ would be shown carrying a lantern. Christ is the truth, not merely the bearer of the truth, some thought. But they misinterpreted what Hunt had attempted to communicate. Art critics of the day also objected to the painting, particularly because its color scheme was heavy and opaque.

It wasn’t until John Ruskin, an influential art critic, wrote to the London Times that the painting gained acceptance. He defended and explained the painting — “I believe there are a few persons on whom the picture, justly understood, will not produce a deep impression. For my own part, I think it is one of the noblest works of sacred art ever produced in this or any age.”

Engravings of the painting were published in 1858, allowing general public to view it in Europe, America, and throughout the British Empire. Tracts, poems, a book, and many Victorian hymns were inspired by the engravings.

The first edition of the painting was donated to Keble College by the widow of Thomas Combe, who purchased it.

Because of the success of the first painting, Hunt painted a smaller version in 1865; it is now shown at the City of Manchester Gallery.

Hunt had a dispute with Keble College because he believed that his work was being kept from the eyes of the world. So he painted another edition of it. A third edition, which is nearly life-size is the best known and was painted around 1900-1904. While Hunt was painting it he began to go blind because of glaucoma. Edward Hughes completed the painting for him.

Charles Booth, an agnostic, bought this third version. From 1905-1907, he financed the exhibition of the painting in cities throughout the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Somalia. An estimated 7 million people viewed it during this time. Some viewers were so moved by the painting’s depiction of Christ that they fell to their knees.

The third edition inspired sermons, more poetry, hymns, and engravings. Booth later decided that the painting should not be in an art gallery. Realizing the impact of the painting, he resolved to present the picture to a church in the UK where it survived the Blitz of World War II. It is still on display there.

William Holman Hunt’s paintings and others suggest that God’s handwriting can show itself through the creative abilities He has given to us. Hunt was a painter who expressed an eternal truth on a canvass.


“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” – Revelations 3:20

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