Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Light of the World

Here it is, the most famous of all PreRaphaelite pictures, and one of the most famous in the English speaking world, William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, painted originally for a small parish church, and now housed at Keble College in Oxford. He painted another larger version later in life that now hangs in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
It is based on Revelations 3: 19-21 where Christ declares that He will befriend whoever answers His knock on the door. It is an elaborate and complicated allegory where the door stands for the human conscience, and can only be opened from the inside. The door has not been opened in ages and is choked with weeds. The only light in this picture is from the lamp Christ carries, from His halo, and from the early dawn in the background. I'll let Holman-Hunt explain the whole thing himself:

The closed door was the obstinately shut mind, the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrances of sloth; the orchard the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul. The music of the still small voice was the summons to the sluggard to awaken and become a zealous labourer under the Divine Master; the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance; the kingly and priestly dress of Christ, the sign of His reign over the body and the soul, to them who could give their allegiance to Him and acknowledge God's overrule. In making it a night scene, lit mainly by the lantern carried by Christ, I had followed metaphorical explanation in the Psalms, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,' with also the accordant allusions by St. Paul to the sleeping soul, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." (I.350-51)

Forgive me everyone, but I am not fond of this picture. I have never been fond of pictures that the artist has to explain himself, and explain in detail. I agree with TS Eliot when he said that a successful work of art begins to communicate even before it's understood. I'm not sure that's the case with this one. Yes, I have a certain distaste for allegory (works of art are not puzzles, code language, or rebuses, contra The DaVinci Code).
Even worse for me is that nostalgic medievalism that is the fatal flaw in so much PreRaphaelite art. So much of that nostalgia was an effort to evade the brutality that any Victorian artist could see all around him in the London streets, or in the streets of New York.


June Butler said...

Forgive me everyone, but I am not fond of this picture.

Damn! You took the words right out of my mouth. Until I read those words, I was thinking that I wouldn't leave a comment, because I do NOT like the painting either. I see that you have an earlier post on the PreRaphaelites, so I won't say more here.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the most famous PreRaphaelite paintings were the ones depicting the dead Ophelia and the dead Elaine. (Now that I think of it, they are essentially the same idea adapted to different source texts: a dead young woman floating down a stream.)
I've seen Light of the World generally only in the same context one might find the Prosperity Gospel picture you posted earlier.

Counterlight said...

"I've always thought that the most famous PreRaphaelite paintings were the ones depicting the dead Ophelia and the dead Elaine."

Possibly, though I doubt Millais' painting of Elizabeth Sidal catching pneumonia while posing fully clothed in a tub of water would appear on the walls of many English and Commonwealth churches and church offices.

Davis said...

One of Holman Hunt's least successful efforts.