The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt,
c. 1900-1904, Oil on canvas, 233 x 128 cm.
The Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral




In the hands of the great artists, the different moments and aspects of Christ's life become archetypes of all human experience. Now, confronting these images on the electronic computer screen, we confront the story of redemption, as well as some revelation of our own need of God and of this story of sacrifice and atonement. Viewing the image of Mary nursing her newborn babe, we are exposed to the feelings that every mother has for her child, that of true unconditional love. In the image of Christ mocked by his accusers we are confronted by innocence and goodness beset by violence. In the suffering Christ, we measure the pain of an often unjust and violent world. Christ risen and appearing to Mary of Magdala presents a universal reaffirmation that God's love cannot be destroyed by death. These pictures surrounding the life of Christ, speak to us of God, of universal truth, and of our own human experience. In them we catch a glimpse of the revealed nature of the Divine, as well as some prophetic aspect of our own nature, and place, in this, the greatest story ever told.


The title of William Holman Hunt's painting is based on Christ's description of himself and his mission. "I am the light of the world," Jesus told his followers. "He that chooses to follow me shall no longer walk in darkness, but shall be in the light of life." (The Gospel of John, 8:12)

Enlarged detail from The Light of the World

In his painting, Hunt explores the idea of Christ coming into the world as a light through a variety of symbols. The lantern in his hand (above) suggests that the message of Christ is become our source of spiritual illumination. This analogy is based in a biblical metaphor: "Thy word (the word of God) is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path." (Psalm 119:105)

A continued investigation of Hunt's painting reveals further symbolism to illustrate his impression of our inability to recognize the significance of Christ's coming. He explained his painting as follows:

"The closed door was the obstinately shut mind. The weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrance of our spiritual idleness. The bat flitting about in the darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance."

When asked why the door had no outside handle, Hunt replied, "It is the door of the human heart, and that can only be opened from the inside."

The Light of the World became the most popular representation of Christ in the English-speaking world. The owner of the painting, Charles Booth, organized that it tour Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa between 1905 and late 1907. A countless number of people saw Hunt's painting, queuing for hours in order to view it (below).


The Light of the World on view in the National Gallery
of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, February - March 1906,
Booth Collection, University of London Library

J. H. Roy wrote, after seeing the painting, that, "the vast crowd stood gazing in silent wonderment, and many in adoration, as though held by some irresistible magnet. I was, on viewing the wondrous face, impelled to uncover my head in reverence."




Standing before the great paintings that deal with the life and person of Christ, one might easily be struck by the humanity represented in a great number of these works. I have great admiration and for the art and symbolic tradition of other religions. And yet, by contrast, it has been my experience that such tradition seems quite often remote and less endowed with humanity. This is most evident when I confront the canvases of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who painted in the 16th century.

Consider this painting, The Adoration of the Kings, painted in 1564. Mary's veil is slipping over one eye, and what seems to be her halo turns out to be nothing more than her straw hat. Joseph, her anxious husband, is seen inclining his ear to a whispering neighbor. Even the kings present a rather motley assembly, with their unkempt hair and stooped postures. How wonderful is the brush and imagination of Bruegel the Elder!

The more one studies his work, the deeper he impresses you with his grasp of the humanity of the Christ story, for this is the story of a God who became man. In this painting, we see the vulnerable Christ-child born among mere mortal men and women. With all of humanity's failings, bigotry's, fears, and pain, among such was the Christ-child born.

The Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1564 oil on oak panel, 112 x 83.9 cm,
London, National Gallery

Examine, if you will, the particular gift that the Child is being offered, a vessel of golden-red grains of myrrh, which is an allusion to his future death and burial. The Child is pictured recoiling from the gift, a gesture which Bruegel may have intended as a subtle foreshadowing of Christ's anguish at the time of his suffering and betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Quite profoundly, Bruegel captures the ambiguity of our stance before God, and the presence of God in our midst. Some stand with eyes boggled and mouths hanging open. In fact, few are actually looking at the Christ-child, while most true to human nature, a number are focused on the rich gifts being proffered. One among the crowd wears spectacles. This, combined with the other roving eyes which refuse to settle on the infant, suggests that the painting is to be read as a comment on humanity's inability to recognize the treasure contained in the Christ story, even when it is right under their nose. Bruegel painted for the lovers of painting and public, not for the religious intelligentsia or churches.


The Newborn Child by Georges De La Tour, c. 1648

We know precious little about Georges de La Tour. He seemed to receive commissions from the ducal court of Lorraine and Paris, and presumably worked as well for the local townspeople and clerics. We do know that he was considerably affected by the spiritual revival led, in that part of France, by the Franciscans. We can also learn quite a bit about what he believed by the magnificent canvasses that he left behind.

In The Newborn Child, we have again, as in the Bruegel canvas just seen, a picture that exemplifies the humanity of the Christ story. At first glance, there is little to inform us that his is a holy painting at all.

The candle held by the second woman is shaded by her hand; its concealed light is reflected from the head and shoulders of the swaddled baby, as if the child itself were the source of light from within the picture. In silence and stillness, the two women gaze upon the equally silent child. The costumes worn may be local to La Tour's time, but this is a universal painting. A cosmic miracle has taken place, that of God become man. The Light of the World is made flesh, and this miracle is contained within the miracle of every single newborn child. By insisting on this simple fact, La Tour makes clear that his embracing of the incarnation of Christ a universal motive, not because Christ, as the Son of God, rules the world, but because he has chosen to be born among us.

Sign and Symbol

Seeing God

In the Eye of the Masters
(PART 2)