Hidden Art in Oxford

first_imgWhy you should go to Keble to see Holman Hunt’s Light of The WorldBy Claudia Rimmigton With the exception of the high profile Millais exhibition at Tate Britain this autumn, the Pre-Raphaelites do not usually get a very good press. Possibly because their reputation tends to focus on a few unfortunate works such as  Rossetti’s “Luscious Lovelies”- stylised depictions of plump Victorian women- and some nature works, like Ford Maddox Brown’s The Pretty Baa Lambs.To think that the Pre-Raphaelites were all sweetness and light, however, would be a gross misconception. Much of their work is serious and visually powerful. William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (1853) is an excellent example.  The picture shows Christ standing in an eerie orchard just before daybreak. He is crowned, robed and bejewelled, and stares directly at the viewer. Shining lantern in one hand, he is shown knocking on the door of a hut while his eyes searchingly penetrate the viewer. The surroundings are dark with the sun gently rising. Dew can still be seen on the ground and a bat hovers overhead. Inscribed in the frame is a text from Revelation: “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.”The door referred to in the text and shown in the painting symbolises the human conscience. The crux is that there is no handle, which means that it can only be opened by its owner and not by God alone. The brambles and weeds at the foot of the door suggest that it has not been opened for a while, and show that the faith has been allowed to whither. The dawn light, however, represents hope that the door might be opened, and the possibility of renewal. According to Hunt, “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy as I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.”As a devout evangelist living in 1850s Britain, Hunt thought that worshippers needed such a painting. The church was going through a period of schism. Many Oxford dons, such as John Henry Newman, had converted to Catholicism from Protestantism in 1848 and had caused many bitter quarrels and disputes by the early 1850s.  One consequence of this was the formation of the Oxford movement, which aimed to encourage more authority in the English church. The Light of the World would later go on to inspire the Salvation Army composer, Sir Dean Goffin, to write one of his most famous compositions also entitled “The Light of the World”.Bearing this climate in mind, it is easy to see why Hunt depicted Christ as a calm but authoritative figure. Viewers commented that the degree of realism made it seem as if Christ was actually there, looking straight into the eyes of the beholder.  His paintings are notable for their strong colour, elaborate symbolism and exquisite detail, and it is well worth exploring his other forays into religious expression. Though it is tempting to mark this as a piece of Victorian irrationality, I can see where they were coming from.last_img

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