In the spring or summer of 1853, Thomas Carlyle paid a visit to William Holman Hunt and on looking at The Light of the World (1853, Keble) Carlyle discussed how he thought Christ should be represented:

I’d thankfully give one third of all the little store of money saved for my wife and old age, for a veritable contemporary representation of Jesus Christ, showing Him as He walked about…And when I look, I say, “Thank you, Mr. Da Vinci,” “Thank you, Mr. Michael Angelo,” “Thank you, Mr. Raffaelle, that may be your idea of Jesus Christ, but I’ve another of my own which I very much prefer.” I see the Man toiling along in the hot sun, at times in the cold wind, going long stages, tired, hungry often and footsore, drinking at the spring, eating by the way, His rough and patched clothes bedraggled and covered with dust, imparting blessings to others which no human power…was strong enough to give to Him.[1]


Carlyle’s relationship with art was a complex one, and he was not particularly attuned to its merits or impulses. Hunt noted that Carlyle approved of The Awakening Conscience (1853, Tate) during this same visit but ‘without any artistic understanding’.[2] Carlyle wrote that ‘In the true literary man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness; he is the light of the world; the world’s priest – guiding it, like a sacred pillar of fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of time’.[3] Carlyle’s use of language often has scriptural overtones and in this case he appears to be recalling John 8:12:

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.

Carlyle’s notion of the priest acting as the light of the world seems applicable to Carlyle himself, Carlyle as Prophet, but it was not a metaphor he willingly applied to the scope of the artist and the sphere of an artist’s influence, reserving it instead for men of the cloth, and Jesus, the embodiment of God, in particular.

In order to understand Carlyle’s opposition to Hunt’s portrayal of Christ, we should consider Carlyle’s theory of the symbol and Hunt’s application of symbols. For Carlyle, the symbol was aesthetic because the symbol was the province of the artist who is a ‘Poet and inspired Maker, who, Prometheus-like, can shape new Symbols, and bring new Fire from Heaven to fix it there’ (in this scenario artist is creator).[4] This source of symbolic authority and responsibility was one which the Pre-Raphaelites took seriously. According to Hunt: ‘I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.’[5] The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing ‘the obstinately shut mind’.[6] Hunt explained the symbolism of the painting in his memoirs Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905) (Hunt was keen to put the Pre-Raphaelite story straight in his later life and used these memoirs to do so). His full explanation is as follows:

The closed door was the obstinately shut mind, the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrances of sloth; the orchard the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul. The music of the still small voice was the summons to the sluggard to awaken and become a zealous labourer under the Divine Master; the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance; the kingly and priestly dress of Christ, the sign of His reign over the body and the soul, to them who could give their allegiance to Him and acknowledge God’s overrule. In making it a night scene, lit mainly by the lantern carried by Christ, I had followed metaphorical explanation in the Psalms, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,’ with also the accordant allusions by St. Paul to the sleeping soul, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand”’[7]


Hunt 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.[8] 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’.[9]

Hunt’s use of the word ‘unworthy’ implies the sincerity and earnestness with which he painted the work: and we should remember the work stems from Hunt’s own conversion, a most personal and intimate experience. As Hunt assured John Lucas Tupper, even the most basic visual elements of the painting had spiritual meaning for him.[10] For Hunt then, it is likely the work confirmed spiritual truths and new dawns, as much as it would for any Christian. The lantern and the moonlight both being symbolic of these new light in Hunt’s life, and the light of Christ eternal. Hunt explained Christ was ‘to be seen only by the light of the star of distant dawn behind, and of some moonlight in front with most of all the light “to guide us in dark places’ coming from the lantern. This mixture of lights is all natural on the understanding that it is treated typically.[11]


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).

Hunt’s sincere work which ‘brings new Fire from Heaven’ should, in theory, have appealed to Carlyle but it seems the over burden of allegory and narrative symbolism alienated Carlyle. Carlyle did not hear Christ’s voice when looking at this painting. For Carlyle, Christ the Man remained distant because of the very symbolism Hunt sought to use to bring divinity nearer. From Hunt’s point of view, Carlyle is representative of the ‘shut mind’, but for Carlyle the work was missing the ‘deep, great, genuine sincerity’ which ‘is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic’.[12]

This seems to be at the core of Carlyle’s criticism. In Carlylean terms, Christ was heroic, not just when viewed as the embodiment of Christ. His divinity itself came from his manfulness, and from us perceiving him as ‘Man toiling along in the hot sun, at times in the cold wind, going long stages, tired, hungry often and footsore, drinking at the spring, eating by the way’. Carlyle is quite correct to notice this was not the Christ Hunt presented, but his comments were brutal, certainly in light of Hunt’s renewed faith:

‘You call that thing, I ween, a picture of Jesus Christ. Now you cannot gain any profit to yourself except in mere pecuniary sense, or profit any one else on earth, in putting into shape a mere papistical fantasy like that, for it can only be an inanity, or a delusion to every one that may look on it. It is a poor mistaken presentation of the noblest, the brotherliest, and the most heroic-minded Being that ever walked God’s earth. 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. Well—and if you mean to represent Him as the spiritual Christ, you have chosen the form in which He has been travestied from the beginning by worldlings who have recorded their own ambitions as His, repeating Judas’ betrayal to the high priests. You should think frankly of His antique heroic soul; if you realised His character at all you wouldn’t try to make people go back and worship the image that the priests have invented of Him, to keep men’s silly souls in meshes of slavery and darkness. Don’t you see that you’re helping to make people believe what you know to be false, what ye don’t believe yourself?[13]


Carlyle’s Calvinism demanded sweat, nor pontifical robes. Carlyle wanted symbols of heroism, of the philosophy of heroism but he was not an astute or perceptive art historian. His view of history perhaps explains some of what Carlyle sought in an image of Christ, for history not only has to be brought into the present, in order to be made real and tangible, but to manifest the divine, to make that also a reality. This strange blurring of past and present makes reality a divinity, and vice versa. The body becomes a manifestation of the divine, and the two become symbiotic. Carlyle’s Christ would be fleshly and manly. ‘Carlyle’s [writing] style demands the reader’s resistance, and draws energy from that resistance. The reader is to be not only spiritually and intellectually involved, but bodily too. The struggle with the reader is a struggle to collapse stable categories’.[14] Carlyle asks us to collapse the material and the immaterial, as we seek to understand our own resistance to this process of receiving the divine through the quotidian. Carlyle also appears to be asking us as viewers to wrestle with Christ, not to just accept him, we must toil and sweat as we meet him, we must rise from underneath the hot sun until we find the moonlight (the one aspect Carlyle seemed to approve of in the painting). This process will create manfulness in us, and the realism of divinity in Christ before us. The reference which springs to mind is that of ‘All flesh is grass’.

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field (Isaiah 40:6)

In Sartor Resartus (the title of which means ‘The Tailor Re-Tailored’) Carlyle’s character Teufelsdröckh argues that ‘Jesus of Nazareth, and his Life, and his Biography’ are the ‘divinest Symbol’.[15] Thomas Steffler suggests ‘The divinest symbol for Carlyle is the historical Jesus because he is the physical reality of the infinite Word having taken the finite form of Flesh’.[16]

Creating tangible representations of Christ was a brave and fresh new approach to the immaterial and viewed in this way, we should see parity between Hunt and Carlyle. Both men in their own different way sought to reconcile a faith in the new world, within old terms. This desire is itself what Carlyle attempted to consider in his factual and yet figurative Past and Present (1843).


Carlyle’s preferred image of Christ is connected to a broader change in Victorian thinking, one which demanded a response or a reformulation into biblical mythology or historical reality: of the past into the present (Carlyle’s whole premise behind his magnum opus The French Revolution (1837)). William Frederick Farrar’s The Life of Christ (1874) is another example text (one which appealed and has relevance to Pre-Raphaelite images like Hunt’s The Light of the World) and demonstrates this same nineteenth century desire for pinning down the religious and mythical character of Christ into a real, tangible harmonious representation, literary or visual. This approach to the divine meant that an artist had to respond to the natural realism within biblical narratives, in order to conserve sacrality and pay reverence to symbols of Christianity when creating a new visual representation of Christ.

In Past and Present Carlyle argued ‘Is not light grander than fire? It is the same element in a state of purity’ and yet Hunt’s concentration on light  which is key, not least in the title, still did not communicate to Carlyle.[17] Whilst Carlyle seemed to be in opposition to his own argument statement ‘All human souls, never so bedarkened, love light; light once kindled spreads till all is luminous’, the enormous success of Hunt’s painting proved Carlyle’s statement did have merit.[18] For Hunt. the fact that The Light of the World was ‘in the main…interpreted truly’ convinced Hunt that his method had been successful.[19]

Carlyle’s thinking seems to have shifted when he wrote ‘these Pre-Raffaelites…[who] copy the thing as it is or invent it as they believe it must have been’ and is ‘the only way of doing anything fit to be seen’.[20] And let us not forget that Christ was one of the Pre-Raphaelite immortals.

For Hunt, like Carlyle, there was a desire to encounter the immaterial, the transcendental, through biblical criticism and historiography. Seeking a realistic representation of Christ was explicitly on the agenda of both Hunt and Carlyle as they sought to combine the notion of the symbol with the factual and the spiritual. Perhaps Hunt was less dogmatic in his application of the symbol of Christ, but his religious faith may well have been a factor in that; the work definitely speaks to people with faith in a way that Carlyle’s writing does not.

So we should approach Hunt’s work as being evidence of the legacy of Carlyle’s writings but also as evidence of Pre-Raphaelite realism and inclination toward redefining Christian symbols. Despite their distinctly separate spheres, both Carlyle and Hunt seem to have shared a vision that Christ was very much man, a man who exhibited ‘manliness’; whilst such representations of Christ triggered vitriolic criticisms by Dickens and others, it seems that in relation to this representation of Christ, that history must consider a certain ill-matched and unrecognised cohesion between Carlyle’s desire for a natural and realistic representation of Christ and Hunt’s embodiment of Christ the Man.

Thought once awakened does not again slumber.[21]


Carlyle did later write that he had been a little too harsh on Hunt’s painting, see Vol 43 of Carlyle’s letters.

[1] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood II Volumes (London: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1914), vol I, p. 262.

[2] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood II Volumes (London: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1914), vol I, p. 259.

[3] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840), p. 70. See also: Accessed 18:58 19/06/16

[4] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (Boston, James Munroe and Company, 1837), p.170.

[5] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood II Volumes (London: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1914), vol I, p. 263.

[6] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism vol i, p. 263.

[7] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism vol i, p. 350-351.

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

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

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

[11] 20th June 1878; London (Huntington MS)

[12] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, p. 70.

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

[14] Gillian Beer, ed., Arguing with the Past: Essays in Narrative from Woolf to Sidney (London: Butler and Tanner, 1989), p. 77

[15] Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, p. 169

[16] Thomas A. Steffler, The Pre-Raphaelite Body in the Poems of Morris and Swinburne (Unpublished PhD Thesis, The University of Ontario, 2010), p.26 Accessed 16/07/12 at 19.52

[17] Carlyle, Past and Present (London: Chapman and Hall, 1845), p. 317

[18] Carlyle, Past and Present, p. 45

[19] Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism vol i, p. 351

[20] Quoted in W.M.R. Rossetti, entry for May 16th – 23rd, 1851, in William E. Fredeman (ed). The PRB Journal (Oxford, 1974). P. 96..

[21] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840). See also: Accessed 18:58 19/06/16