“Light from Darkness”: Holman Hunt on The Dawning of New Hope

“He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:10-12)

In John 8:1-11, the apostle records one of Christ’s most famous encounters with an adulterous woman, where Christ is instructed by the religious leaders to condemn her, but instead chooses to forgive her. Almost as an exposition of this narrative, the following verse then declares that Jesus has come to bring light to a dark world. Perhaps this might have been what Hunt had in mind when he likewise presented these two paintings together: one of the fallen woman's redemption and the other of Jesus as light.

Holman Hunt Light of the World and Awakening Conscience

Light of the World

‘The Light of the World’ is a portrait of Christ standing out in the open and knocking at the door of what is presumably a home. It is night time and the foreground of the painting is crowded with shadows, but the lamp that Christ carries in his hand casts a warm glow on his face as well as the door of the home.

Symbols of light and darkness are employed abundantly throughout both the old and new testaments to represent Christ’s redemption for a world of sin. Thus, by titling his painting ‘Light of the World’, Holman makes this allusion explicit. This is reinforced by the various symbols of light and darkness in the painting. By positioning the moon directly behind Christ, it suggests that, like the moon, He reflects the light of His Father (the Sun) to illuminate a dark night sky; this is paralleled by the lamp he carries which promises, upon the opening of the door, to scatter the darkness from the whole house. Again, this echoes Christ’s appeal to the sinner “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).

His crown reminds us of his authority as King—and, consequently, the promise of a royal heirship which he confers upon the sinner—while his scarlet mantel reminds us of the his offering of his blood for the sinner’s. The look upon His face is inscrutable and, as He awaits the sinner’s response, the bare trees behind him glow with the first rays of a coming dawn. It is a moment pregnant with possibility.   


The Awakening Conscience

If ‘Light of the world’ depicts an imminent dawn that waits just beyond the horizon of a dark night and just beyond the frame of a shut door, ‘Awakening Conscience’ brings us one step forward to the moment when that door—on in this case, window—opens and daylight breaks through. It also transposes this biblical narrative onto a contemporary domestic setting, envisioning how that entrance of light into a fallen Victorian world might look.

The fallen woman is the epitome of all that is repugnant in a pious Mid-Victorian society. She is the antithesis of the Angel of the Home, unrestrained in her sexual appetites and, like Eve, the one who brings Adam down, along with the rest of humanity.

For Hunt’s fallen woman, however, the promised deliverance has arrived like light through an open window, even while she is still in the lap of her ilicit lover and still nestled in a room full of the symbols of luxury and decadence.

The title of the painting, ‘The Awakening Conscience’, suggests that the very first ray is just dawning upon her now. Indeed, there are many continuities between this painting and the former, as the play of light and dark also features prominently in this painting. The light falling directly on her face is reminiscent of the face of Jesus that glows with the light of the lamp; it also makes her stand out from her slightly darker surroundings, so that she is literally turning her back on this darkness to face the light. Her upturned chin and distant gaze suggest that she has perhaps received a vision, and the lush trees suggest that it is one of new life. These are a stark contrast to the bare trees in the first painting, and remind us of the biblical promise of regeneration, which usually pictures the born-again Christian as a fruitful tree (Psalm 1:3).

For the world of the apostle John’s time which was darkened by religious dogma, Jesus’s light came in the form of forgiveness, humanity and a new life of light. Perhaps, Hunt might have been drawing these parallels to his own society too.    


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