Keble College, Oxford

Keble College, Oxford was founded in memory of John Keble, a clergyman of the nineteenth century who today appears to have been overshadowed for the majority by the reputation of John Henry Newman – the almost saint.

Keble was a pivotal and essential part of the Oxford Movement. He had a profound effect on the shape of the Church in the nineteenth century and the way theology was discussed and disseminated to those coming through the doors of Oxford. Keble for many years maintained this sincere aspect of the clergy, by both employing members of the clergy and by many of the students taking orders.

William Holl after Richmond, John Keble (1863, Met Museum)

The ideals on which Keble College was founded are rather monasterial in shape: shared meals, study, worship, and a regular and devout undertaking of the sacrament. The chapel is a central part of both life and study within Keble College and the decoration is pivotal in sustaining this sacred space.

Keble College Chapel

The foundation stone for the Chapel was laid on St Mark’s Day (25th April) in 1873 and was officially opened three years later on the same day (in 1876). The money for the project came from a relatively local man, William Gibbs from what is now a glorious National Trust place, Tyntesfield, near Bristol, in Somerset. Gibbs was a devout Anglican and also a philanthropist. Gibbs was also a believer in William Butterfield, the architect of Keble College Chapel. Paul Thompson writes ‘the interior of Keble Chapel, consecrated in 1876, was Butterfield’s last masterpiece in brick’. [1] It is thought that Butterfield took much inspiration from St. Marks, Venice where he spent much time studying its interior.

Keble College Chapel interior, Oxford

The chapel is a single space, the furniture low and dark, the colours drawn from the polychromatic mosaics on the floor, and the light floods in from the east window. The colours are rainbow, from greys and whites, to yellows, greens and plums. The colours rise from the floor to the ceiling and the windows add to the colours, even when framed by red brick. The mosaics in the chapel are also designed by Butterfield, and there are some particularly fine bright ones, such as The Last Judgement. Christ sits enthroned and although kingly, he displays the wounds on his hands from his criminal crucifixion. Angels flank him, and St. Michael (archangel and warrior) is below him. On each side of Christ there is also an angel with brightly coloured wings and six disciples. There is a further angel on the bottom section of the mosaic, and there are a further two panels on either side which depict the resurrection and the damned.

Butterfield, The Last Judgement, Keble College Chapel, Oxford

The colours are rainbow, from greys and whites, to yellows, greens and plums. The colours rise from the floor to the ceiling and the windows add to the colours, even when framed by red brick.

Mosaics in Keble College Chapel, Oxford

The vaulting is rhythmic and painted in strong formal patterns, although the colours are soft enough to ensure the effect maintains a subtlety to it.

One painting of international interest within the chapel, and of which there are three versions, is the original The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt painted in 1853 which was first hung in the Royal Academy in 1854. It now hangs in the side chapel of the college, next to another religious work, The Dead Christ Mourned, by William Key. The other two versions are in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London and the third smaller version is on display at Manchester City Art Gallery, painted between 1851 and 1856.

Key, The Dead Christ Mourned (Keble College Chapel, Oxford

The Keble version of The Light of the World was begun when Hunt was just twenty one years old and continued until he was aged twenty nine. One of the issues was Hunt’s own religious feelings and theologies, another was his inability to capture the dawn he wished to. It was only during his travels to the Middle-East that Hunt was able to create the effect he required. Light was a key component to the work and as such could not be taken for granted, not atmospherically, pictorially, theologically or spiritually.

The painting became so popular and so consuming for Hunt, that he painted a larger version at the grand old age of seventy, with the help of his assistant Edward Robert Hughes. This later version now hangs in St. Paul’s, London, and was commissioned by the wealth shipowner Charles Booth, who prior to presenting the work to St. Paul’s in 1908, sent it on a world tour which secured both Hunt’s reputation and the popularity of the work, which can now be found reproduced throughout the world.

However, the St. Paul’s work does not have the same quality, or the same rawness to it, that the version from the early Pre-Raphaelite period inevitably does. We should also remember that the age of Hunt no doubt contributed to the less well captured atmosphere and colour in the third version, even with the help of the extremely accomplished Hughes as his assistant.

Hunt The Light of the World (1853( in situ at Keble College Chapel, Oxford

The 1853 version was given to Keble College by Mrs. Thomas Combe, who along with her husband, was a great admirer of Pre-Raphaelites paintings, many of which can be found in the Ashmolean collection today via their bequests.

There are two main sources of light shown in the picture, the lantern and the light around Christ’s head. The lantern lamp is symbolic of new light, new vision, new sight and new understanding whereas the light around Christ is representative of salvation and redemption. The third source is the distant twilight which Hunt took some care to capture just as he desired, spending much time at a makeshift hut in Worcester Park Farm in Surrey.

Hunt, lantern detail from The Light of the World (1853, Keble College Chapel, Oxford)

Beneath the painting, Hunt includes a quote from Revelation 3: ‘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’.

The door represents the human soul and cannot be opened from the outside as there is no handle. The closed and locked door is therefore representative of man’s obstinacy and growing despondency with religion during the Victorian period. Not only is there no handle but the nails are rusty and ivy is slowly suffocating the ability of Christ entering the door, to sup with whoever lies behind it. The overgrown ivy implies the door has never been opened but suggests Christ will continue to knock and will be forever present for when the new day arrives.

Hunt, foliage detail from The Light of the World (1853, Keble College Chapel, Oxford)

Christ’s demeanour is calm and gentle, but he is what Carlyle described as being ‘a mere papistical fantasy….’Do you ever suppose that Jesus walked about bedizened in priestly robes and a crown, and with yon jewels on his breast, and a guilt aureole round His head? Ne’er crown nor pontifical robe did the world e’er give to such as He. [2]

Hunt had attempted to present symbols that ‘were of natural figures such as language had originally employed to express transcendental ideas’ and hoped therefore that those who saw the painting would be able to read the symbols and to identify with them.[3]  What he did not want to create was an immaterial Christ, an unrealistic divinity. ‘In England you know spiritual figures are painted as if in vapour. I had a further reason for making the figure more solid than I should have otherwise done in the fact that it is the Christ that is alive for ever more. He was to be firmly and substantially there waiting for the stirring of the sleeping soul’.[4] Carlyle’s dismissal of Hunt’s earnestness must have cut deeply for Hunt had taken much pains with his design of symbols, outdoor painting, and props.

Hunt, Christ detail from The Light of the World (1853, Keble College Chapel, Oxford)

In My Grandmothers and I Diana Holman-Hunt tells of going with Hunt’s widow to visit the version of The Light of the World hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mrs. Hunt proclaimed, “I have the honour to be the artist’s widow…The picture is full of symbols: the white robe represents the Power of the Spirit.” Diana, a small child, recalled more simplistically that “It was great-grandma’s best damask tablecloth and she was very cross when Grandpa cut it up.” And Mrs. Hunt’s reply suggests that even she did not fully share her husband’s sacramental vision: “My grandchild is right in a way but it was the tailor who cut it up, and in spite of my husband’s careful sketches and entreaties, he produced—what do you think? A fashionable frockcoat! It was really rather droll.”[5]

A. Brierly, after Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (c. 1874)

Nonetheless, the painting became one of the most popular of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both England America. The work was a remarkable success and beyond anything else in Hunt’s career. In fact, it was a unique piece for Hunt and it remains an powerful piece of reflective sacred art which attempts to encompass reflection, vision, prayer, and longevity of faith and religious iconography. Artistically speaking, the work was a culmination of Hunt’s ideas of sacred art and Pre-Raphaelite realism.

Whilst Hunt is buried in the Crypt of St Paul’s, it seems more fitting to visit his The Light of the World at Keble College Chapel when one is paying respects or trying to experience the sincerity of faith Hunt had hoped to convey. If you are fortunate enough to catch the organist playing during your visit, the experience of this painting will be even further magnified and its sacred spectre become quite moving. And yet despite its power, it remains ever so dignified. Keble College Chapel, a wide open space full of colour and angels, is a perfect sitting for this work.

Hunt’s crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

[1] Accessed 13:47 04/07/16 See Thompson, Paul, William Butterfield, Victorian Architect (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971)

[2] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism vol i, p. 259-260

[3] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism vol i, p. 350.

[4] Accessed 21:50 29/06/16

[5] Diana Holman Hunt, My Grandmothers and 1 (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 109