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“The Light of the World”

August 9, 2016


Understanding the Social Gospel movement is integral to a full appreciation of the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon; the latter is simply the physical manifestation of the former. Perhaps the single greatest representation of the Social Gospel, however, is “The Light of the World,” a mid-19th century painting by English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt.

Washington Glassen, Walter Rauschenbusch, and others who formulated the movement interpreted the Gospels in a radically new way: the previous understanding of mankind’s relationship with Jesus as Son of God had been vertical, while Gospelers saw it as horizontal. It may be an exaggeration to suggest that Jesus’ divinity was diminished; rather, it was his “humanity” that was now being emphasized. It is difficult to believe that Holman Hunt’s barefoot and very human Jesus, knocking at a door grown over with briers and brambles, is not the image held by Gospelers. Few paintings of the 19th century have received more analysis and interpretation than “The Light of the World,” but I believe a few more insights can be gleanedĀ that will link it more closely with this project. In the meantime, enjoy what may be Hunt’s most renowned work.

There are actually three versions of this painting, the latter two painted because of its international popular appeal. The original is in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford (what most Modernists would claim as among the most grotesque examples of Victorian excess; William Butterfield is the Victorian architect you love to hate); the second is more accessible at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the third and smallest version hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery. That small painting was part of a travelling Holman Hunt exhibit that hung at the Minneapolis Institute of Art a few years ago, where I was fortunate to bask in its twilight glow for an hour or so.


There is more than a little irony in the connection between Hunt’s painting and Keble College, for Keble is the Anglo-Catholic college at Cambridge where “High Churchmanship” is practiced (or was) and at the end of his life Hunt held that party in low regard. Ironic also in that the painting itself was so popular among the Low or Evangelical wing in the Church of England.

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