Lately I’ve been working with Revelation 3:20 as interpreted by Holman Hunt in his painting “The Light of The World.” “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and he or she with me.” This inviting text is not obviously about light, but the painter’s night vision of Jesus standing before the closed door with a lantern in his left hand is possibly the most familiar way of looking at this text. The following meditation uses memory and the imagination; then we will turn away from imagery completely.
This painting may be the most familiar British religious image. The interpretive title, in large letters by the artist on the frame, evokes chapter 8 of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Hunt was a Victorian era Anglican painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He used an eerie realistic style full of symbolism. This is what he said many years later about his original conception:
[At this point, if working with a group, the leader turns on quiet music for meditation. Suggested: “Ave Verum”, Tchaikovsky/Mozart. Each person should have a print, or the painting may be projected]
“Nothing is said about the night (in Revelation 3), but I wish to accentuate the point of its meaning by making it the time of darkness, and that brings us to the need of the lantern in Christ’s hand. He being the bearer of the light to the sinner within, if he will awaken. I shall have a door chocked up with weeds, to show that it has not been opened for a long time, and in the background there will be an orchard.” Hunt said the symbols were “his own private fantasies.” The door, for example represents “the obstinately shut mind.” John Ruskin, the renowned 19th Century art critic and social reformer, defended Hunt against many who thought his painting weird and unseemly and gave it a negative first reception. Ruskin interpreted it this way: “On the left side of the picture is seen the door of the human soul; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions by a creeping tendril of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hovers about it; its threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles and fruitless corn…Christ approaches it in the night-time –Christ in his everlasting office of prophet, priest and king. He wears the jeweled robe and breastplate, representing the sacerdotal investiture; the rayed crown of gold, in woven with the crown of thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.” …Perhaps you see other things in this richly symbolic work. An enormous copy of it made late in life by the artist was sent on a world tour, and now hangs on the right side of the nave in the vastness of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral …It would be an impressive sight indeed to stumble upon the painting unawares. One might feel awed and overwhelmed by it –and yet warmed and drawn by the gentle and compelling majesty of the luminous face of the Lord…
And now I invite you to close your eyes, and remember the painting’s impression on your mind, perhaps vaguely, maybe in some detail; it won’t matter: …the twilight background.. the lantern in Christ’s left hand. . the door without latch or knob..the right hand, knuckles to the door; the Lord is knocking. Hear the gentle, yet firm knocking; feel the vibrations on the air….NOW, you are inside. Open the door, so the Lord can come in as he promised…There is an oval table and two chairs. He places the lantern in the center. He sits. You sit…Look at the face of Christ –now, through the lamplight, obscure maybe, yet clearly the Jesus you know.
[Turn off Music.]
NOW, still remaining in the scene, close your eyes. Focus on the light alone…When distracted notice your breathing, and quietly take the name of Jesus on the breath…Rest in that light.
NOW, eyes still closed, notice the light spreading all around your body…Now, take this warm, precious energy into your body. Breathe in the light. ..Then let it spread to your head, your chest, the center of gravity in your belly…spreading now down into your legs and feet…all over within and without…The Light.
When you are ready, come back to the group…Gently open your eyes.