Accueil / Traductions / English / William Holman Hunt : « The Light of the world » 1851-53

William Holman Hunt : « The Light of the world » 1851-53

Gilles Castelnau

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

In the mid-19th century William Holman Hunt, with a few other painters, brought into being the « Pre-Raphaelite » movement.  What they wanted was to rediscover the artistic purity of the Italian primitives, before Raphael, as a reaction against the academic conformity of their own era.

In the Middle Ages, said the English Pre-Raphaelites, painters expressed a spirituality, a depth of feeling which was hidden afterwards by a purely aesthetic search.  It was Raphael (1483-1520), « the greatest painter of all time », who caused art to lose its spiritual dimension.

So it was that the young Holman Hunt (then aged 24), with Dante Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and a few others, gathered around him in the 1850s a little group of painters who rejected, in their joint search for human authenticity, the cold conformism of the Victorian era and the Church of England.

They were clearly in the line of Methodist puritanism, brother of French, Swiss, Scottish and Dutch Calvinism.*

The great Christ, placed today in the Anglican cathedral of St Paul’s in London, was in its day a scandal to right-thinking people because of the depth of its gaze, which questions the soul of the visitor with an inquisitiveness that Anglican services, cold and stereotypical by comparison, would not allow themselves.

– The gaze of Christ undoubtedly fixes the visitor with seriousness, but it is brotherly, without threat or reproach, nor anything guilt-inducing.

– His hand is knocking on a door, referring to the biblical text: « Look, I stand at the door and I knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into his home; I will eat with him and he with me. » (Revelation 3:20)

We understand that this door has been long unused, that it is never open.  The tall weeds which have grown against the door show this.  Everyone will imagine themselves there in their own way, and see there what their fantasies inspire in them. This door could be that of our world, of our heart, of our taboos, of the hang-ups which prevent us from living. And here is Christ knocking, so that it opens to realities of freedom and happiness.  Each, in their own meditation, can see their hopes.

– Darkness and light. Hunt gave this picture the title « The Light of the World » and the light indeed shines forth from the lantern of Christ which lights the way, showing its sharp stones and gleaming pebbles. The light also shines all around: on the face of Christ, on his hand which is knocking, and, remarkably, on the door which will, perhaps, open, on his robe and on his cloak. We do not know whether it is night or day but it is certain that a supernatural light gives a new reality to a world in darkness.

We could, still here, summon up our own life, perhaps lived in the agonising darkness of uncertainty, mediocrity or failure, to which the opening to the divine presence could return its forgotten humanity.

In this picture Hunt has set down all his hope and his faith: hope brought to anguished humanity by the merged unity which Christ suggests to us fraternally and powerfully in faith.


* Note of the translator
The description of Methodism as « puritan » may raise a few eyebrows among English readers. The Methodist revival had its roots in the High Church movement of the 18th century and was, at least in its early days, strongly influenced by the Non-Jurors, among them William Law. Even more eyebrows will be raised by the description of Methodism as a « brother » of Calvinism anywhere.  Except for a small (mainly Welsh) offshoot, Methodism is firmly Arminian in its theology and Calvinists have been among the movement’s fiercest opponents. John Wesley’s journal contains several (sometimes amusing) accounts of the hostility he encountered as a result of his views on « the doctrine of the decrees ».  The entry in his Journal dated 17th May, 1742 is a case in point.


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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