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Christ the Redeemer and the Light of the World

Christ as the suffering Redeemer

Andrea Mantegna (1435-1506). Statens Museum for Kunst – Copenhagen. 1495-1500.

The Light of the World

William Holman Hunt (1827-1919). The Wardens and Fellows of Keble College – Oxford. 1853.

Luke tells how after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles. He gave his last instructions.

Jesus opened the mind of the apostles to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this G38 .” Jesus was referring to a prophecy of Isaiah, who gave a prediction of salvation in the ‘Fourth song of the servant’.

Look, my servant will prosper, will grow great, will rise to great heights.
As many people were aghast at him – he was so inhumanly disfigured that he no longer looked like a man – so many nations will be astonished and kings will stay tight-lipped before him, seeing what had never been told them, learning what they had not heard before.
Who has given credence to what we have heard?
And who has seen in it a revelation of Yahweh’s arm?
Like a sapling he grew up before him, like a rose in arid ground.
He had neither form nor charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts.
He was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard.
Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying, while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God; whereas he was being wounded for our rebellion, crushed because of our guilt;
the punishment reconciling us fell on him, and we have been healed by his bruises G38

In these lyrical phrases stand the words ‘a man of sorrows’. This theme was a subject of many pictures of Jesus.

Andrea Mantegna

Andrea Mantegna made a picture of ‘Christ as the Suffering Redeemer’ or the Man of Sorrows around 1495-1500. His picture refers to the above texts. Mantegna painted Jesus as a classic statue, stylised as an antique chiselled sculpture, white and cool as Carrara marble.

Jesus is sitting on a grey porphyry sarcophagus. The tomb is opened and the lid lies somewhat further to the left on the ground. The sarcophagus is open because this is a scene of after the Resurrection of Jesus. The scene is one of Ascension, and Jesus also shows the wounds of his martyrdom so as to take the viewers witness like the incredulous Thomas. Jesus shows the viewer his sufferings. The sarcophagus is at the same time a tomb and an altar on which Jesus proves his sacrifice. It is also a throne for Jesus.

Jesus has an expression of deep sorrow on his face. His suffering shows clearly; he keeps his head inclined as if he were asking us for pity and sympathy. Jesus seems to want to talk. He opens his mouth as if to appeal to the viewer and wanting to communicate with him. The painting thus involves the viewer directly. The kneeling angels that are holding Jesus strengthen this involvement. The angels claim Jesus and they support him. They are weeping at the pain of Jesus. One angel is dressed in red and has red wings; the other one is in blue. These are the colours of fire and of the skies, of the cherub and the seraph, of old the guardians of God. The angels’ wings form with the open arms of Jesus a character X, the Christogram of ancient Greek language.

Andrea Mantegna painted two landscapes on either side of Jesus. On the right of the picture is a quarry in which stone cutters are sculpting antique sculptures. These represent the old Gods and the pagan world that the Christ has come to abolish. Above this scene is Golgotha with the three empty crosses pointing ominously to heaven. On the left Mantegna pictured in the Mount Zion with the city of Jerusalem at its foot. Somewhat lower still are green fields and the Holy Women are approaching the tomb. The first light of dawn creeps over the horizon. Grey clouds hang in the skies, which grow gradually blue in the faint sunlight.

Mantegna lived from around 1430 to 1506. This picture dates from somewhat before 1500. Mantegna was seventy then. One might expect a work in rough, nervous brushstrokes, maybe hesitatingly brought on the canvas. But this painting is ascetic, as if unhesitatingly chiselled by the best craftsman out of hard marble. The lines are unwavering, the draped shroud or toga of Christ is a marvel of exact drawing skill. The ‘Christ as the Suffering Redeemer’ may be something of a testament of Mantegna. It is a picture of refined and elevated aesthetics in which the transcendence of the man Jesus is the central theme. Mantegna did not yield to the impatience of an old man. He took his time to represent his personal image of Christ without compromising the least of his aesthetic concepts of art. Florentine line and drawing reigns in this picture. The quiet appeal of Christ could be the final appeal of Mantegna to his audience and to his God.

Andrea Mantegna remained eminently religious even through the Renaissance opened so many doors to classical antiquity. In Mantegna’s picture the Roman icons are merely a sign of the world that ended with Christ. Mantegna communicated his own message of the ultimate values of society and for him these were religious values.

William Holman Hunt

There are various references to the image of Jesus as the ‘Light of the World’.

The most direct one is in John’s Gospel. When Jesus spoke to the people, he said: “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life G38 .”

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, in the ‘Second song of the servant’, we read the following lines.
‘I shall make you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of the earth. Thus says Yahweh, the redeemer, the Holy One of Israel’ G38 .

In Matthew’s Gospel is told how Jesus, after the arrest of John the Baptist, withdrew from Galilee and leaving Nazareth he went and settled in Capernaum, beside the lake, on the border of Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew said that this was to fulfil what the prophet Isaiah spoke:
‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali!
Way of the sea beyond Jordan. Galilee of the nations!
The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light;
On those who lived in a country of shadow dark as death a light has dawned’ G38 .

In the Revelation of John, in its preliminary vision, John sees God in a vision surrounded by seven lamp stands. God is holding seven stars in his right hand. These refer to the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. God judges the seven communities and for Laodicea he said:
‘Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in and share a meal at that person’s side G38 .’

William Holman Hunt, a Pre-Raphaelite painter of the second half of England’s nineteenth century, the Victorian age, painted a scene of ‘The Light of the World’ that refers to these various lines of the scriptures. Jesus stands in the darkness and he knocks at a door as written in the Revelation of John. He holds a lamp of light so that the title of the picture is justified. God is depicted as Jesus, wearing a crown, a halo and the cloak of a king. William Holman Hunt was a very religious man. He was very poor; he had to work from his twelfth year on as a clerk. But he had a great determination and a forceful character. He made many religious and moralising pictures. Hunt travelled twice to Palestine and started some of his most elaborate paintings there. He wanted to know and see for himself the landscapes and settings of Biblical scenes.

‘The Light of the World’ is a haunting picture even though God has a gentle and expecting face. God, the King, has come in the night to a solitary house in the woods. Wild weeds and flowers, ivy and brambles have grown to the door for this house was neglected without God. The handle is large and rusty, but God nevertheless visits the lonely modest door. A wizard’s lamp throws its eerie light on God’s green robe and on his red-bearded face. God has come with bare feet through the dark forest where roots and trees intertwine around a marsh or lake.

This image is one of the most famous of Pre-Raphaelite religious pictures. It is a technical marvel. Hunt has well succeeded in rendering the strange light falling on God and the plants before the door. The picture is one of the night scenes lit by a point source, here the lantern that Christ holds. Such pictures are always very difficult to imagine and then to paint and the skills needed from the painter are considerable. The colours in William Holman Hunt’s painting are harmonious and not as harsh as in many other paintings of his hand. Another Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais wrote that Hunt indeed made the picture at night by the light of a lantern.

The picture was an expression of Hunt’s religious zeal and of his moralising sense. The idea of the picture is to show that even in places where the message of Jesus has been forgotten, where the door to Jesus is overgrown with weeds, God may enter any moment. He will enter at an unexpected moment to bring light in the darkness of the souls.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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