The Light of the World: An Ideological Criticism
by Setrag Alexan Shahikian
This rhetorical analysis focuses on The Light of the World, a painting by William Holman Hunt. This article explains how the painting relates to Christianity, Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and the ideal of British nationalism during the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
Religious Art
William Holman Hunt
British Empire
William Holman Hunt and Charles Booth's worldviews can be seen through The Light of the World, a painting produced in the late nineteenth century that reflects the agenda of nationalism within the British Empire and the ideology of Christianity (fig. 1).
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (c. 1851-1853), Keble College, Oxford, oil on canvas over panel, 125.5 x 59.8cm. Photo: Public Domain.
A post-structuralist approach will be used to criticize the piece, its hidden meanings, and the effect it had on society. This perspective can also elaborate on the hegemonic class and power struggles that were occurring at the time. This paper will look at the painting’s aesthetic qualities and how they elaborate corresponded with the values of the Pre-Raphaelites, and it will also examine the use of this painting while it was on tour throughout the British Empire. I maintain that The Light of the World is a culmination of the values reflected by the Pre-Raphaelites, universal Christian doctrine, and nationalistic pride. Understanding how the public reacted to paintings like Light of the World can help us to understand the climate of the British Empire and the values the public had, both in Britain and in the colonies, during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.
We will first look at the presented elements of the painting, followed by its suggested elements, by closely examining its iconography and the messages Hunt was communicating to his audience in Light of the World. Once we have established the suggested elements, we will relate this to William Holman Hunt’s attitude toward Christianity. Then a criticism will be made in the connection between the Pre-Raphaelites and the depictions and the aesthetics of Hunt’s work and how the values and ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites showed within his work. Next we will analyze the tour of the painting The Light made around the world and how it emphasizes nationalist identity within the British Empire. Lastly, we will identify the nature of the painting, the function it served, and the evaluation of these two ideas.
The Light of the World is an unusual case because it had an original and two copies. Oddly, it was the latest copy that made the tour around the world. The first, and smallest, of the three paintings, measuring 49.8 x 26.1 cm, was worked on between 1851 and 1856 and is currently owned by the Manchester City Galleries in Manchester, UK. The second copy, measuring 121.9 x 61 cm and larger than the first, was painted in 1853 and was given to Keble College, University of Oxford in Oxford, UK. The last of the three copies, and the largest measuring 304.8 x 193 cm, was painted from 1900-1904 and was given to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, UK (BBC, n.d.). It was the third painting that was originally purchased by Charles Booth and was set out for the world tour.1
The style in The Light of the World reflects the aesthetic ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites are credited for starting one of the first modern art movements in Western society. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 with the founding brothers consisting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. The Brotherhood wanted to overturn the academic style of art and intended to purify it. The Pre-Raphaelites took inspiration from late medieval period and early Renaissance art, paid an acute attention to painterly detail, were attentive to color and light, and employed realism rather than the academic idealized human form.7 These qualities are all found within Hunt’s work, especially in The Light of the World, making it a shining example of the Pre-Raphaelites’ philosophy of art, design, and society.8
In The Light of the World, there are a series of iconographic symbols that can be categorized as presented elements. These elements are as followed: the door without a handle, the overgrown weeds, the bat, the night scenery, the garment of Christ, the lantern in Christ’s hand, and the inscription above the painting. Jeremy Maas, an author on the topics of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, quoted Hunt in his text that elaborated on the suggested symbolism behind these elements:
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 laborer 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.’2
Hunt, a deeply religious man, was inspired by words of Jesus in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me,” and John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”3
The post-structuralist framework being used to analyze The Light of the World allows us to dig deeper in trying to understand why exactly Mr. Hunt was compelled to create this painting, and why he decided to duplicate it and display it to a wider audience. There were growing religious tensions within Europe during the 19th century, which were spurred by changes to the religious climate, including the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), the growth of the veneration of Mary in Roman Catholicism during the 1850s, and the threat of Marxist theory with its ideal of atheism from 1844.5 These three events greatly contrast with Hunt’s beliefs, which were aligned with the Broad Church, also known as latitudinarian churchmanship in the Church of England.6 Surely Hunt must have been aware of the writings of Marx in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) and must have understood the idea of atheism, which was a threat to his beliefs. The production and replication of The Light of the World can be seen as a combatant to these external-threatening forces on the Broad Church.
The purpose of The Light of the World can be seen as the intent to spread the word of Christ, or to inspire the audience to become more dedicated Christians. This can also be seen in other of Hunt's paintings inspired by religion, such as The Awakening Conscience (1853) (fig. 2)
William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853), Tate Collection, London, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
and The Shadow of Death (1870–1873) (fig. 3).4
William Holman Hunt, The Shadow of Death (1870-1873), Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, oil on canvas, 214.2 x 168.2cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
Each of these works communicate to the viewer the ideals of Christianity and how the person can become a better, more devout Christian through, for instance, sacrifice as seen in The Shadow of Death, the resistance of temptation and sin depicted in The Awakening Conscience, and the idea of repentance and acceptance felt in The Light of the World.
In Hunt’s paintings The Light of the World and The Awakening Conscience, there is a rhetorical tool used in each depiction that communicates to both the ideologies of faith and nationalism within the British Empire. There is a sense of urgency and timeliness that is created within the visual rhetoric that lends to a persuasive device. In The Light of the World, Christ is knocking at the door; yet, he is shown to have already turned aside from the door, and it is up to the viewer to let Christ in. This suggests to the viewer that if they choose not to answer, they are not aligned with Christ or even the British Empire. In The Awakening Conscience, the young woman leaps from her lover’s lap in a moment of epiphany, now understanding her sin. The audience sees this action of change and could be compelled to do so themselves, to walk the path of righteousness as with Hunt, Christ, and the Empire.
It was Charles Booth’s backing of The Light of the World that led to the third version’s tour around the Empire between 1905 and 1907. 9 The painting was shown in commonwealth territories of the British Empire such as Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Booth’s commissioning of the third version of The Light, in addition to showing it worldwide, led to the questioning of his intent, aside from religious objectives. The topic of the tour was commonly written about in the press and the painting was seen as a gift from Booth to the Empire.10 Scholars, such as Matthew C. Potter, have suggested that the tour was a form of propaganda used to inspire nationalistic pride within the British Empire.11 Several events had left the British hurting, including the hostile Canadian territory and armed rebellion against the British during the 1830s, the recently fought Boer War in South Africa in the late 1890s, and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The Light of the World gave religious and imperialistic vitality to millions of viewers around the globe. Potter maintains that the tour was a form of Imperial unity, and cultural events were used as a form of British glorification.12
The specific reason Charles Booth decided to conduct the tour is vaguely described in scholarship. It has been noted that “the idea of funding an Empire tour fitted with Hunt's desire that his painting be made available to the widest possible viewing audience.”13 The Light was also particularly fitting for a world tour due to three factors, two of which directly relate to the depiction. First, this depiction of Christ appeals to Christians universally. Second, the symbol of light is used synchronously with the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The symbol of sunshine or light, though not necessarily fire, often is used in visual rhetoric to communicate to the viewer a sense of hope, a new beginning, and righteousness.14 The Light was fitting for the tour because it resonated with the audience on a spiritual level, while securely instilling associations between the painting and the Empire it came from. The third reason why The Light could have been chosen for the tour was because of the painting’s popularity within the British Empire, which was likely the main reason why Hunt created two copies of the original.
Brenda Rix, the Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, asserted that the use of printed reproductions aided in the dissemination of Hunt’s work and the messages it carried. She notes that Charles Booth intended this tour as “a means to promote world peace.” Though 7 million people viewed The Light of the World by the end of its world tour, it was the reproduction of the painting in prints that spread the painting’s popularity.15 The growing literate middle class in the West, a product of industrialization, were eager to see and own their own copies of Hunt’s iconic painting.16 Prints of The Light of the World were sold before, during and after the tour and Hunt’s painting appeared in items such as note cards, postcards, newspapers, prayer books, and Sunday school papers. Hunt understood and embraced the use of the black and white color scheme provided by prints and used it to spread his and Booth’s vision worldwide.17
Through an evaluation of the presented and suggested elements of The Light of the World, we have seen that it is a reflection of Christian ideals. The viewers within the British Empire who saw the painting felt an increased sense of unity and nationalistic pride, as the work communicated more than just an illustration from Revelation; it visually demonstrated the worldview of Hunt, Booth, and the Empire. In evaluating how the nature of the painting relates to its function, one can proclaim that the religious message of the painting can be clearly read by viewers of the image. Yet, the sociological and political connotations present in the work are independent from The Light itself; they can be understood through the effect the tour had on the people of the colonies. Though Hunt produced The Light of the World to communicate religious symbols, the result of the tour, from Booth’s support, created a separate and autonomous interpretation of nationalist  ideals amongst the British.
1The Light of the World Decoded: A resource booklet for teachers and students,” Saint Paul’s Cathedral, School and Family Department, n.d., 3.
2 Jeremy Maas, Holman Hunt and The Light of the World (London; Berkeley: Scolar, 1984), 40-41.
3 “The Light of the World,” Wanganui Herald, March 25, 1905, 4.
4 Franny Moyle, “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2009.
5 On atheism, see Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1844).
6 George P. Landow, Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979).
7 See Moyle, “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.”
8Pre-Raphaelite artists go on show at Tate Britain,” BBC, September 11, 2012.
9 “The Light of the World Decoded,” 3.
10 “Light of the World,” Auckland Star, June 28, 1907, 5.
11 Matthew C. Potter, “British Art and Empire: Holman Hunt’s Light of the World,” Media History, 13 (2007), 8.
12 Ibid., 10.
13 Geoffrey Troughton, “’The Light of the World’ At The Light at the End of the World, 1906,” The Journal of New Zealand Art History 28 (2007), 2.
14 Some examples of the use of sunshine or light as a symbol include: The rising sun from the Japanese flag, the Statue of Liberty and her shining torch, and the radiating light from The Holy Spirit as is often seen in other Christian art.
15 Brenda Rix, “Holman Hunt: ‘Branding’ a Vision,” Art Gallery of Ontario, February 25, 2009.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
Landow, George P. Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.
“Light of the World.” Auckland Star, June 28, 1907: 5.
Maas, Jeremy. Holman Hunt and The Light of the World. London; Berkeley: Scolar, 1984.
Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1844.
Moyle, Franny. “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2009.
Pre-Raphaelite artists go on show at Tate Britain.” BBC, September 11, 2012.
Potter, Matthew C. “British Art and Empire: Holman Hunt’s Light of the World.Media History, 13 (2007): 1-23.
Rix, Brenda. “Holman Hunt: ‘Branding’ a Vision.” Art Gallery of Ontario, February 25, 2009.
“The Light of the World.” Wanganui Herald, March 23, 1905: 4.
The Light of the World Decoded: A resource booklet for teachers and students.” Saint Paul’s Cathedral, School and Family Department, n.d.
Troughton, Geoffrey. “’The Light of the World,’ At The End of the World, 1906.” Journal of New Zealand Art History 28 (2007): 1-15.
Setrag Alexan Shahikian
B.A. in Communication Studies, Minor in Art History (2015), Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Setrag Shahikian is a soon to be BA graduate of Kutztown Univeristy. His studies there focused on visual rhetoric, art history and art theory. Setrag hopes to become involved in art administration in the near future.

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