“Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock.” William Holman Hunt’s Light of the World. 5

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William Holman Hunt: Light of the World

“At every time and in every place God draws close to man. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.”

So begins the first number of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It lays out for us, right from the start, God’s persistent love, while not turning a blind eye to the difficulty felt in accepting God’s love because of sin.

Perhaps the inner tension felt within us—which Saint Paul expressed so well when he wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:1) — is why William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (above) is so popular. When we see this painting we know immediately that our own story is found here upon the canvas.

Hunt presents us with the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an “overgrown and long unopened door”—is it the door of our own heart and our mind?

The door has no handle on the outside and therefore can be only opened from within, illustrating that we are free to keep the door of our heart locked, leaving the Divine Guest on the doorstep,  or, if we choose,  free to let him enter into our life.

Jesus approaches the door like a gentleman; we can tell he is not going to beat it down, nor show any anger, nor pass through the locked door as he did after his Resurrection when he visited his disciples in the Upper Room. He does not want to impose himself against or will. On the contrary, his knocking will be a gentle tap and the invitation he makes, should we choose to listen, will be reminiscent of Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open, I will come, and we will sit side by side, and share a meal together. ”

Nonetheless, while a gentleman, Jesus is still an imposing figure and there is no doubt who is in charge. He wears two crowns upon his head: The crown of glory and the crown of thorns, now in bloom.

Jesus takes up the whole center of the painting, his solidity and mass stressing that he is alive for ever more, firmly and substantially waiting for the stirring of our sleeping soul. He may knock gently but he will also knock persistently. We can’t help but notice a sorrowful expression on Jesus’ face. How long will he have to knock? Is he knocking in vain?

It is only after noticing Jesus and the locked door that our attention is drawn to the secondary elements of the painting: The brambles, the bat, and the lantern.

Detail: Brambles

The brambles represent vice and sloth which have taken over the unkempt garden of virtue because of neglect. Flittering around in the darkness, above the door, is a bat, a natural symbol of darkness, of ruin, evil, and neglect. Fruit has fallen to the ground and lies uncared for and unattended. Yet Jesus towers over the brambles and the bat, and one feels that with a simple invitation he will crush them underfoot effortlessly, “All things are under his feet” (Hebrews 2:8). Perhaps it is his presence which has quietly kept the fruit from rotting.

Making the painting a night scene allows Hunt to use Christ’s lamp as the primary source of light. Whether it is symbolic of the light of conscience, the light of the Word, or the light of the Church, it is Christ who holds it, and the way in which the cords of the lamp are twisted around his wrist shows the unity between the light and Christ: All three emanate from him.

Detail: Lantern

The lamp’s rays fall gently upon the door, the weeds, and the fruit. If the door was opened there is no doubt that the light would be “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105), and the owner would hear “the night is far spent; the day is at hand” (Romans 13:12).

What will happen next? We hold the key.

Fr Jason Smith

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5 comments

  1. Excellent essay. Your expression of Jesus as Gentleman: a gentle man, who is imposing and formidable, yet, at the same time, gentle in His invitation to us to come and partake of His truth, goodness, and beauty as Savior and Redeemer.
    That is a wonderful insight. Thanks!

  2. This is a painting which I saw first as a little girl – it has always fascinated me (the original was in the Manchester Art Gallery in the UK for a period of time). As an adult, I appreciate the symbolism of this painting – Jesus, knocking at the door of our consciousness – the dark night symbolizing the darkness of our humanhood – the unkempt garden and bats of our problems, neglects, and sorrows – Jesus, ‘the Light of the World’ – knocking gently for permission to enter the ‘door of our consciousness’ – revealing His Light and Living Presence – which will dispel the darkness of our Soul.

  3. I was looking for insights for the Sunday School lesson and came across your article. Thank you for posting and sharing. We all have difficulty with that door – stubbornness, willfulness, and lack of humility, but Jesus in His mercy and love keeps knocking and little by little the door will open.

    • You are welcome, and thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, this painting always provokes a lot of insight and reflection. Funny that it is one of the most searched Christian paintings on the internet. Funny, because it’s ironic — people are seeking Christ who is seeking for them. This painting skillfully teaches who it is who seeks first. What comfort that should give us. Let’s remember to always open the door to Christ!

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