Picture: Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ photographed by Simon Cozens, cc by nc 2.0
I have the great fortune of living in Oxford. Tolkien wrote his books not far from where I live. Shakespeare used to lodge down the road. And with a short walk to Oxford University’s Keble College, I can see one of the world’s most famous paintings of Jesus—Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. It’s a touching painting, but the picture of Jesus it presents gets quite messed up each Easter. That was what I shared on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment this week—the day Jesus messed up his nice-guy image.
The Soother of Souls Raises a Ruckus
In The Light of the World Holman Hunt depicts Jesus in a dark forest wearing a white robe and holding a lantern. He knocks gently on a door that has no outside handle. The door is our heart. Jesus is waiting for us to invite him in.
It’s a powerful painting, if not a little… placid. Blond beard, flowing hair, the soft light of the lantern giving his serene face a warm glow—this is the Jesus you find on many religious websites and get-well cards: a meek and mild soother of souls who wanders the hills with a lamb in his arms. It’s a nice image, but an image Holy Week messes up.
Not Just Mister Nice Guy
Picture: Christ Confronts the Money Changers. Photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Holy Week begins with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. On Holy Monday he then makes an infamous visit to the Temple. He walks into its outer court and finds merchants doing a roaring trade in religious goods. Something in him snaps. He flips over the moneychanger’s tables, flinging coins in the air. He makes a whip out of rope and starts driving out the animals on sale for sacrifice. Imagine cattle rushing about and doves flying from cages; swirls of dust, bleating sheep, squealing children scrambling for those flying coins. ‘Meek and mild’ Jesus is being neither meek nor mild. The soother of souls is raising a ruckus.
The merchants are making a mint from weary pilgrims. The moneychangers are using inflated rates. But it’s something else that makes Jesus most angry: the outer court is the only place in the Temple where women and foreigners can worship. “This should be a place of prayer for everyone,” he yells, “but you’ve made it a den of robbers!” All that noise, smell and animals is stopping people finding God.
The trouble-making Jesus of Holy Week is a far cry from the soft-lit face in Holman Hunt’s painting. But maybe there’s a link between the two. Holman Hunt has set his painting at dusk, suggesting the hand that knocks on that door has been patiently knocking all day. And the hand wielding that whip in the Temple so passionately will soon be pierced, bleeding and stretched out wide.
For me, this starts to give us a more complete image of Jesus: One who patiently persists, passionately removes barriers, and personally suffers—One who will do whatever it takes to bring us into a relationship with God.