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Holman Hunt - The Light Of The World

( Originally Published 1902 )



Human Life's Mystery Illumined

THE Lady Chapel of Keble College in Oxford in itself is insignificant, but it contains one of the richest treasures of modern art. The college buildings are among the most pretentious, and least attractive, in that great university. Most of the other buildings are architecturally beautiful, but the relatively fine proportions of these are spoiled by commonplace decorations. The large chapel alone is noble and imposing, and its adornments, despite a tendency to gaudiness, are unusually impressive. The Lady Chapel contains only a reading-desk, a few pews, and the painting to which I have referred. The picture is the chief glory of the college, and it has found an appropriate home in the pile of buildings which have been raised to the memory of the author of the " Christian Year."

Holman Hunt's " Light of the World " is the masterpiece of the leader of the pre-Raphael movement.

John Ruskin once wrote of this picture: " It is, I believe, the most perfect instance of expressional purpose and technical power which has ever been produced." It is widely known because of its reproduction in photo-graphs and engravings, and yet no picture that I know contains so much that is too evanescent for either photograph or engraving to reproduce.

The person of the Christ dominates the canvas. His luminous figure stands in the midst of darkness; His head is surrounded by a halo; one hand is holding a lantern, and the other is knocking at a door. Behind Him lies the landscape, around Him are trees thick with foliage, above His head stars are shining. He is clad in a long, white robe, over which a cloak is thrown which is fastened at the neck with a jewelled clasp His head is crowned with thorns. Directly in front of Him, and also above, a passion vine is growing. The expression on His face is one of mingled firmness and sympathy. The eyes I know not how to de-scribe. They seem to be looking directly at the beholder and yet, also, to be gazing through the present into the far-distant future.

The technique of the work seems to me to be as near perfection as anything that I know in modern art. Concerning it Mr. Ruskin has said: "All is the the most exquisite mystery of color, becoming related at its due distance. Examine the small gems on the robe of the figure. Not one will be made out in form, and yet there is not one of all these minute points of green color, but has two or three distinctly varied shades of green in it, giving its mystery value and lustre."

Let us try to interpret a few of the truths which the artist has intended to impress in his masterpiece. The lantern which He carries in His left hand, and which illuminates his path, is evidently a reference to the text, " Thy word is a lamp to my feet." The rich robe over the white vestment probably symbolizes His priestly nature, and the crown of thorns is expressive of His sacrificial death. The erect figure speaks of the living Christ. The passion flowers seem to be intended to remind us that wherever He may move in His work of helping and blessing He will be sure to meet suffering. All redemptive pain was not endured on the cross. This passion vine is springing to meet the hand of the living Christ. The darkness by which He is enveloped, and into which He sends His light, is, evidently, the mystery which environs man's mortal existence. The hand at the door represents and interprets the text, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." The lantern illuminates only the foot-path, and thus we are reminded that the Scriptures afford relatively a little light. The brightness which penetrates the darkness, and which is the true light which lighteth every man, proceeds from the head and face of the figure, thus illustrating the text, " The life is the light of men."

I know not whether I have found in this painting the message which the artist in-tended to convey to the world. A picture is never simply what the artist paints. It is quite as much what the beholder sees. Every truly great work of art contains suggestions of which the artist never dreamed. In a certain sense a painter's work is always greater than his thought, because it not only reveals his thought but inspires other thoughts. The Light of the World is more than a poem or a symphony in color. It is a hymn, a sermon, a prophecy, one of the noblest and truest expressions of soul which appeared during the last century. It well illustrates Dr. Forsythe's contention—" That the most distinctively Christian art is based on Protestant principles and the doctrine of the Resurrection."

The picture illustrates what the artist him-self said concerning the lessons which he had learned in Palestine : " I had increased leisure for reading, and both Biblical and classical Scripture seemed to have unlimited intensification with the life illustrating every epoch of human society around me. I have met many persons and many books, and not a few pictures, bearing testimony that familiarity with the surroundings of holy history has encouraged a lower conception of that history than before. No such effect has it produced on my mind. I am not afraid of looking the matter through and through. I can, without loss of reverence, allow that the children to whom the Father's messages were given did use their own faltering lispings, and express themselves with the light of their own age alone ; but I recognize through it all a divine charge, a Father's adjuration to faith and trust. In fulness of time a due interpretation arrives from Him who alone knoweth the end from the beginning. Perhaps, with less opportunity of knowing the real history, the Parisian sentimental travesty of the Gospels by Renan, or the romance by Strauss suiting modern intellect, would impress me with some of the respect which so many men have for them. To me their theories present far greater obstacles to faith than the original Gospels offer. Is it beside the mark in writing of my professional life to say this? I think not ; for I wish always to paint as men are supposed to write—what I believe."

This artist approached his canvas with the same spirit which fills a prophet about to deliver his message. With him art was a medium for the expression of truth, and the genius with which Providence had endowed him was an ordainment to holy service. His achievement will never be appreciated unless it is regarded as more than an illustration of unique technical skill ; it must be studied for the spiritual meaning hidden within.

The attitude of mind with which the picture should be approached should be one of reverent inquiry, of perfect willingness to learn, and, above all, of the humility which belongs to those who realize that they are in the presence of wondrous but slowly resolving mystery.

The inevitable solitariness of Jesus is made vividly impressive in this painting. No other figure appears in all the landscape. In the midst of the thick and black night He moves along His pathway alone. That solitariness was unavoidable. All great natures are lonely. The more unique they are the greater is their solitariness. Seers and sages, reformers and leaders of men, have ever had to tread their pathway of service unattended by real fellowship. Both appreciation and applause are often denied them. The loftiest mountains have no companions. As the foot-hills in the distance may be imagined to look up to them, so little men look up to those whose influence they feel; but fellowship between them is impossible. Those who see farthest cannot all at once speak what they see, and that causes smaller natures to doubt the reality of the vision. Those who from experience, and from revelation, have learned what is best for their fellow-men, and who speak faithfully to others of what they have learned, are usually misunderstood, and very likely will become martyrs. Those who rise highest have fewest friendships. Jesus had few near companions. He found rest and peace in the house of Mary and Martha; but spiritual sympathy requires more than a roof and someone to talk with ; it is found only where men are intellectually and spiritually congenial. The artist has here expressed one of the commonest phases of life. On the cross Jesus cried: " My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me," with an intensity that clearly indicates that He knew no near human companionship. That is the final utterance of spiritual isolation, because it is the voice of the loftiest spirit of all time.

Jesus was unique as a religious teacher. He detected the real human need, and limited His teaching to what would serve His fellow-men. He was not a philosopher; He was a revealer. His was not the voice of one who had travelled farther than His fellow-men, but of one who had seen more distinctly. Other teachers have argued; Jesus simply declared. Others represent men as seeking after God; He shows how thoughts and purposes look to those who see as God sees. Others endeavor to explain mysteries ; He simply pours upon them light enough to enable men to make life a service and a blessing.

The light in the picture radiates from His person, and that also is symbolical, because the wonderful words of Jesus are as nothing to the wonderful life which he lived. He is the only interpretation of His doctrine, and His doctrine is but the expression in words of the ideals which guided His conduct. It is necessary to know the history of no. other religious teacher in order to appreciate his message ; indeed, it is often better to know nothing of the character and conduct of many masterful men lest they be found to neutralize their words. Not so with Jesus. His teaching is bound up with His living so that without the latter the former cannot be understood. To the question, What is Buddhism? no one would think of replying Buddha; and to the inquiry, What is Mohammedan-ism ? no one would answer Mohammed. Those religions long since obscured the lineam¬ents of the teachers who first made them powers among men. But when anyone asks, " What is Christianity ? " few would fail to be satisfied with the answer, Jesus Christ. He is Christianity. He is its only accurate and luminous interpreter and interpretation. The progress of nineteen centuries has not transcended Him. No other of the Masters of religion, that I know, has so identified him-self with his teaching as to make an under-standing of his life essential to an appreciation of its meaning.

Still more significant is the vital connection between the Christian revelation and the welfare of men in their individual and social relations. The Swami Sardananda, a rare and beautiful soul, an apostle of Vedanta to the people of the West, once said to me that the native religions of India had nothing to do with ethical questions; but Jesus identified religion and ethics. Moral elevation and social amelioration are inevitable where the doctrines of Jesus are accepted. There have been wars in His name ; His teachings have been used as a garment for tyranny; martyr fires have been lighted under His cross, and a wake of tears and blood has followed the progress of the church in many lands. All this, and much more, must be sadly acknowledged, but still it may be affirmed that just so fast and so far as His teachings, in their simplicity and purity, have been accepted there have appeared, as a direct result, improved social conditions, better political institutions, and, among individuals, purer minds, more confident hopes, and a more dominant sense of love and brotherhood.

The artist is true to history in the development of his theme. Light from the person of Christ has already penetrated into nearly all the dam places of the world, and, as naturally and inevitably as the rising of the sun brings the glory of the day, it is bringing sweetness and beauty, inspiration and brotherly love, into all the homes and haunts of men. That ever-living but still solitary Christ continues to move along His pathway in the midst of the world's sorrow and sin, and everywhere, when He is allowed clearly to express Himself; His person is luminous, and radiant. He reaches down to men, but they are tardy in rising toward Him. Far in advance of the centuries, He is waiting for those who are ignorant, and slow in learning, to grow into a realization of what to Him was vision :

" When the Lord of love was here,
Happy hearts to him were dear,
Though His heart was sad ;
Worn and lonely for our sake,
Yet He turned aside to make
All the weary glad."

This picture brings into clear relief the truth that the sufferings and death of Jesus were only incidents in His earthly career. Others have suffered quite as keenly as He. His agony on the cross was great, but only that which was incident to His human nature, and was not as long continued even as that of the two thieves. All through the years of His earthly ministry He bore griefs, carried sorrows, and suffered with men, as was inevitable because of His true humanity. In the emphasis which has been put upon the pain of Calvary, many have forgotten that all progress involves suffering; that all who are great enough to be sensitive to human sin and woe must often carry heavy hearts; and that until the better time comes those who seek to improve the conditions of their fellow-men will find all that the passion flower symbolizes over their heads and under their feet. Human growth involves suffering. Strength comes in no other way. All reformers and teachers, all prophets and saviours, have walked along a road like that which Jesus trod. Disciples and Apostles have to make up that which is behind in the sufferings of their Masters. All pain may have, and should have, a redemptive quality. Because philanthropists, missionaries, and teachers are willing to sacrifice now, after the example of Jesus, their work is bearing fruit in saving sympathy and in better conditions. No prophet is understood in his own time. In proportion as he sees the sin of the world it will cause him suffering; and, still more, if he dares to attempt its relief must he count on opposition. In proportion as he bears the pain of others his own heart will be broken. The Kingdom of God is not advanced by compliments and coddling. Heroism is required of all those who would climb the steep and craggy heights. The fires of martyrs shine above all the progress of the centuries. Men of science as well as of faith have shown unflinching resolution. An incredulous world repays both alike with persecution. In all ages the blood of the prophets and seers has been the seed of progress and civilization. Every reform is born of travail. This is no new truth, but it had new emphasis from Jesus. He took up the old and elemental commonplaces which men had forgotten, and poured upon them a brighter light. Among them all none is of greater importance than this—Heroism grows out of austere conditions. Those who live for applause will achieve nothing. The noble soul whom one generation condemns the next will probably crown.

Jesus stands at the door and knocks, and, even as He knocks, above His head there drops a passion vine and from His feet an-other vine rises almost to meet His hand. In the way which He chose for Himself suffering was inevitable. But we must not for-get to observe the triumphant look upon His face. We see only the pains of conflict; but His eyes are glad with the vision of sufferings ended and victory won.

This is a great lesson. The days for sacrificial service are not yet ended. Intolerance is not dead. The spirit of persecution still lives. The world needs a new life of love and brotherhood as sadly as ever ; and to secure it we should have more leaders of heroic quality who will go in advance of their fellow-men, who will not withhold their hands from service because above them and beneath them are misunderstanding, obloquy, and death.

The solitary Christ is still the suffering Christ, but His sufferings are not judicial ; they are natural and inevitable. The Light of the World does not teach that because one died for all, all shall escape ; but that the One who died for all illustrates the spirit in which all who would serve their fellow-men must be willing to meet their tasks.

In the painting, Jesus with one hand is holding a lantern, which is the symbol of the light which comes from the written word, and with the other hand He is knocking at a door, by which is symbolized the entreating love of God for individuals, while from the aureole which surrounds His head the light of love and peace extends to the limits of the horizon. The entreating love of God is a sublime and transforming truth, and is the brightest light which shines on this loud-swelling tide of human care and crime. That figure of kingly majesty, that face of divine beauty, that hand knocking at a door that is locked and barred, in a pictorial form, ex-presses the very heart of the Christian revelation. The Spirit who is immanent in the universe, and on whom it depends, and who is so great that He can be discovered by no human search, is personally interested in every soul. No one in any nook or corner of the spaces is beyond the reach of His love ; and nowhere in the midst of the earth's barbarism is there a single child of man who is not be-set behind and before by His redemptive purpose. The love of God for the unlovely is the chief lesson of this painting; for the King in His beauty is knocking at a cottage-gate, where those within are either ignorant or careless of His presence. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Men may be careless or neglectful of themselves ; they may shut their doors to the shining sun or the splendid stars, but they cannot shut themselves away from the Father's love. And that love has no favorites. Like the sun and the rain it is alike for all—without money and without price.

That the leader of the Pre-Raphaelites, who have so often been regarded as the fleshly school of painters, should have penetrated so deeply into Christian truth, and with such perfect fidelity have set forth its distinguishing doctrine, is a tribute to his spiritual vision, and a prophecy of the time when a host of others, besides theologians and preachers, shall see visions and dream dreams.

For many years to come in the Lady Chapel of Keble College, or in some more conspicuous place, "The Light of the World," with its unfading colors, will preach a wondrous sermon to those who may look upon its beauty and glory. As a work of art it has seldom been equalled, and as a message of a prophet of God it has not been surpassed.

It reminds us of the solitariness of all souls who are thrilled by a redemptive purpose ; shows that the place of Jesus as a Teacher was unapproached and unique ; that His sufferings were inevitable in such a character and such a ministry; and, most vivid and vital of all, it places in clear relief the central doctrine of the Gospel, which is the entreating love and the persistent, unwearying entreaty of our Heavenly Father. That is the light that is scattering all darkness and which some time will bring a new day to the world.

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a strangely pathetic poem, in another and very beautiful form, has voiced her interpretation of the truth which shines from Holman Hunt's immortal painting.



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