Great Art: The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt (Interpretation and Analysis)

Maria Cristina
3 min readMar 14, 2022
The Light of the World
Source: Keble College

I’ve decided that this week is going to be religious art week on this blog. For seven days, I’ll be highlighting pieces of interesting religious art from the Western world. To kick things off, I want to take a look at one of the most popular devotional paintings in Victorian England: The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt.

Hunt was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; like all the members of this group, he sought to express “genuine ideas” and serious subjects through his art. For Hunt, this often meant executing religious works, such as The Light of the World.

The painting depicts Christ standing in an autumnal landscape; he stands in front of a wooden door with his hand raised to knock. The scene illustrates a verse from the Book of 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.
- Revelation 3:20

The verse is an unusual subject in Christian art. For centuries, many painters preferred to focus on more dynamic Biblical subjects. In my opinion this is because artists and their patrons naturally gravitated toward better-known Biblical stories that would be easily recognized and understood by viewers (such as the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Nativity). These narrative-driven scenes also tended to be more visually interesting and offered the artist an opportunity to display their skills. It’s also important to remember that mass literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Western world; in an age when many people could not read, images became an important tool for religious education, meaning that religious paintings had to be fairly easy to interpret.

In contrast, the meaning of The Light of the World is less obvious; the piece seeks to portray a more nuanced element of Christian teaching. The door mentioned in the Biblical verse represents the human soul. As many art historians have noted, the door in the painting lacks a knob or handle, indicating that it can only be opened from the inside. The commonly accepted interpretation of this detail is that each person must make a choice to open their heart to Christ. According to my research, the eponymous light in the painting comes from three sources, Christ’s lantern, which represents “the light of conscience”; Christ’s halo, which represents the “light of salvation”; and the rising sun, which perhaps represents the dawning of a new spiritual life.

Often called “a sermon in a frame,” The Light of the World is rich with symbolism and meaning. Contemporary audiences certainly responded to the power of the piece, and it quickly became one of the most popular and recognizable images of Christ in nineteenth-century Britain. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the painting became a cultural touchstone.

The painting was so popular that Hunt created two additional copies of the work during his lifetime. One of the copies, which is now displayed in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, was even sent on a tour around the world, visiting Africa, Australia, and Canada. Today, The Light of the World remains one of the most famous and influential religious paintings of the modern age.

Originally published at on March 14, 2022.