by Peter Corney
In today’s image saturated culture the most well known and iconic images are those created by advertising agencies; Maca’s golden arches, Nike’s swoosh, Apple’s apple!
But in the second half of the 19th C one of the most well known images in the English speaking world was a picture of Christ painted by William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World”.
The exhibiting of this painting was probably the first artistic blockbuster. It was first exhibited in St.Pauls Cathedral London and thousands came to view the painting. Later it was taken on a tour of the British Commonwealth and was viewed by an estimated seven million people. Thousands of prints were made and hung in Victorian homes of both the rich and the poor all over England and the Commonwealth. Musical oratorios were based on it and several highly popular devotional books. It became the inspiration for much Victorian popular piety. Its popularity carried over into the 20th C and was constantly reproduced in prints, on bookmarks, as an illustration in Bibles and the basis for gospel tracts. It was used widely by chaplains with the troops in the First World War (1914-18.) By the 1950’s its popularity had faded along with much Victorian art, like the pictures on the Pears soap wrapper! It was now restricted mainly to the walls of Sunday school rooms and those of godly grandparents. The times had changed.
But with a renewed interest in things medieval and gothic it may well speak once more to a new generation .
The cultural and historical background to the painting is very interesting and has particular significance for Anglicans. Hunt was an English painter and a founding member of the Pre Raphaelite School. Hunt and his friends wanted to move back to a more gothic style before the influence of Raphael and the Renaissance in the 15thC. There was in Victorian England (mid 19th C) something of a gothic revival. There was a fresh interest in the Arthurian legends and the romantic past. The industrial revolution was in full swing and England was undergoing great social change. This led to a romantic nostalgia for the past. There was also a revival of interest in religious subjects in painting.
The gothic revival was also reflected in theology and ecclesiology. In the mid 19th C the Anglo-Catholic movement began in the Church of England. They were seeking to create a greater sense of holiness and beauty in worship and to restore what they considered to be the richness of the pre reformation church. A group of architects, furniture designers and artists with similar interests formed The Camden Society. This group ‘furnished’ the theology.
At this time a large number of new churches were being built for the new suburbs and expanding towns. Many of these were designed in the gothic style and furnished accordingly. These buildings return to the pre reformation pattern of elevated chancels with choir stalls and a further elevated sanctuary with an altar placed against the east wall replacing the reformation pattern of the communion table in the chancel with the people gathered around. Rood screens reappeared to screen off the chancel and sanctuary. Side or ‘Lady Chapels’ were recreated similar to the mediaeval practice of chantries for saying mass’s for the dead. These Gothic revivals are very different buildings to the simpler auditory design of the reformation churches of Wren and later Nash (St. James Piccadilly, All Souls Langham Place), designed for the ministry of the word not the performance and observance of the Mass by priests in a removed and elevated sanctuary.
The Anglo catholic movement was to affect the development of the Anglican Church for many years. In Australia and New Zealand, while the early establishment was largely by evangelicals, Anglo Catholicism became very influential from the 1920’s on to the extent that by the 1960’s their views became the dominant one in the Australian Church with the exception of Sydney. Given that the new colony was building many churches their design was greatly affected by this gothic revival. It wasn’t till the post second world war building boom that our churches began to take on more modern designs although even these were still influenced by the revival of pre reformation ideas. Given the way buildings shape us and subconsciously influence people’s ideas the impact has been profound.
Ironically at the height of its influence in Australia the inner energy of the movement was beginning to die, largely due to the slow erosion by Liberal theology. Today traditional orthodox Anglo Catholics are few in number. Most of the churches they influenced in the past are now dying or dead. They have been led for many years now by people of liberal theology who retained a liturgical and symbolic ritualism but one that largely emptied the symbols of their first order and orthodox meanings. The tragedy of this is that because their influence was widespread in Diocese like Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and many country dioceses their collapse has greatly affected the viability of the Anglican Church in Australia today. (See the article on this website entitled “The future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo – Catholic movement”).
The recent Papal offer (Oct.09) to accept them into the Roman Church will find very few takers in Australia. Modern liberal Catholics in Anglicanism will not find Rome’s discipline and clarity on fundamental doctrine at all comfortable.
Hunt did two versions of the painting “The Light of the World” the first and smaller one hangs in Keble College Oxford, the second, life size and most famous is in St. Pauls Cathedral London. A devout Christian he said, “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I am, was a divine command”.
It is an allegorical painting illustrating Revelation 3:20, (also Psalm 119:104, and John 1: 4,5.) In which Jesus says:
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.
The painting depicts Jesus as Lord and King in Medieval courtly dress He is holding a lamp as the true light of the world. The door is covered with weeds and has no handle on Jesus’ side. He is appealing to us to respond and not to allow the door of our hearts to be closed and cluttered with the weeds of indifference or carelessness. The background is the morning dawn rising and a bat, a symbol of ignorance, is flying away from the light of the dawn. Jesus is looking out at us the viewer appealing to us to open our hearts to him. This genuine and biblically faithful message in the painting still has power today. Jesus does not aggressively coerce us but gently knocks on our minds and hearts calling us to open the door and let him in. This is a message to both believer and unbeliever. Will the believer deepen his relationship with Jesus, will the unbeliever enter into a relationship with the living God? (Image from ‘The Victorian Web’, George P Landow, landow.com)