Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12), revealing we are by grace the light of the world (Mt 5:14), when we turn and see the grace of his uncreated light in the midst. In Holman Hunt’s painting of 1853, the ‘Light of the World,’ Christ stands at the door of the closed heart and knocks (Rev 3:20; Song of Songs 5: 4-6). Familiar from childhood, Hunt’s ‘Light of the World,’ has continued to inspire opening hearts, but his inspiration for the face of Christ was the face of the poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, who sat for Hunt for a day in her mother’s company, in Chelsea, in her early twenties. Hunt tells us that it was the ‘solemn earnestness’ of her expression that he was seeking in the face of Christ, an expression that transcends gender. The closed door in his painting was the closed mind that may be awakened by Christ’s still small voice, illumining the heart. The weeds are the addictive passions that lead to gross neglect, whilst the lantern is the Word of God illumining the path of all who otherwise are lost in the darkness of forgetfulness. The night is the desolation of despond into which Christ enters, without despair, waiting for the heart to open. The orchard represents paradise lost, but also the possibility of paradise regained. Hunt says he was not otherwise drawn to what he calls the ‘sepulchral poetess,’ but nevertheless there she is, hidden in the face of Christ, earnest and solemn, unseen yet present.
Christ is the light of the world standing at the door of the heart, waiting to be recognised, loved and welcomed home. Embraced in the Spirit and intimately known, when wisdom turns and sees, welcoming Christ in the midst, the mind descends into the heart. The weeds of addiction die away as the opening heart unites with Christ in uncreated light. Darkness is dispelled as the lantern of prophecy reveals the light of pure prayer in the Spirit. Perception is cleansed as glory illumines awareness from within, turning distraction into deifying remembrance. An old childhood picture becomes the symbol of a lifetime, of Christ’s remembrance of God enlightening the heart. The image of Christ enlightening the world ceases to be a faded print on a nursery wall, but awakens awareness inside and out, far transcending Hunt’s own ambivalence to Christ’s luminous presence. The light of the world knocks on a door that opens only from the inside, but wisdom opens from within, welcoming glory home.
Orthodox icons of Christ, the light of the world, have their resplendent radiance, but Hunt’s picture still speaks to those who have lost all capacity to revere icons. As a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt sought to return to pre-renaissance sacred art, renewing sacred symbolism with the beauty of holiness. His ‘Light of the World’ stands alone, however, breaking out of the circles that gave rise to it, perhaps because its subject transcends the age that produced it, perhaps because childhood awareness of the holy lends hallowing radiance to it. The opening heart remembers the moment before opening with gratitude, gratitude that the knock came and was answered in the Spirit from within. Love’s glory awakens wisdom that delights in the glory of grace, rejoicing that what was firmly closed is now wondrously opening, remembering that the earnest solemnity of a poet’s face remains gladly concealed beneath the face of Christ, as he watches and waits at the door of the heart. Christina G Rossetti died in 1894, leaving her poetic works and a commentary on the Book of Revelation, called the ‘Face of the Deep,’ together with this look of earnest solemnity that continues to gaze out at us, well over a century and a half after it was painted.