Luke 11:5–13; Matthew 7:7–11
Knock, And It Will Be Opened To You
Emerging Into The Light
Commentary by Dana English
This is a Christian funerary chapel: the Cathedral chapel of St John of Trogir (also known as Bishop Giovanni Orsini) in Croatia. From 1468 onwards, it was enlarged by Niccoló di Giovanni Fiorentino, with the collaboration of the Dalmatian artist Andrea Alessi, and is a beautiful synthesis of antique and Renaissance elements. The coffered ceiling echoes the Palace of Diocletian in Split; sculpted saints and apostles line the sides of the chapel, with putti dancing above them; higher up are roundels of light. In the lower range of twenty-one bas-relief panels, spiritelli (sometimes also called ‘genii’) bear flaming torches as they emerge from half-open doors. In the Old Testament, such torches signal the presence of the Deity, as with the torch-like sword at the gates of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24) and the torch in Abraham’s covenant with God (15:17).
In Roman art and sculpture, the genius of death is often shown holding a torch upside down, extinguished. The spiritello in this panel is depicted blowing out the flame of the torch he carries.
In extinguishing his torch, the spiritello could be interpreted as emerging from the darkness of the underworld, as in a former pagan world-view, into the light of the Christian hope of resurrection.
On most Etruscan urns, there is nothing to indicate anything but that passing through the portal to Hades is an irrevocable farewell. In late antiquity, many persons influenced by Greek conceptions and Oriental mystery cults gradually came to entertain a hope of life beyond the grave. From a vague and melancholy notion of the dead dwelling together in the depths of the earth came a sense of a transformation by means of the portal of life/death, an opening out toward a celestial beatitude. The soul moves beyond, and upward.
The Lukan passage that is the subject of this exhibition has us picture a man knocking at a closed door. This bas-relief offers instead a portal that has been opened; it is not clear by whom. Perhaps the emerging spiritello, having knocked from within, has found that knock answered; an entry is now possible into the illumination of faith, the substance of hope.
Bialostocki, Jan. 1973. ‘The Door of Death: Survival of a Classical Motif in Sepulchral Art’, Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, 18: 7–32
Haarløv, Britt. 1977. The Half-Open Door: A Common Symbolic Motif within Roman Sepulchral Sculpture (Odense: Odense University Press)
Stefanac, Samo. 1996. ‘Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino e la Cappella del Beato Giovanni Orsini a Traù: Il progetto, l’architettura, la decorazione scultorea’, in Quattrocento Adriatico: Fifteenth Century Art of the Adriatic Rim, Papers from a Colloquium held at the Villa Superman, Florence, 1994, ed. by Charles Dempsey (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale), pp. 123–41
Who Opens, And Who Enters?
Commentary by Dana English
Wilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) painted this interior with what might be called obsessive regularity.
Strandgade 30, which he shared with his wife, Ida, from 1898 to 1909, was a neighbourhood of Copenhagen developed in the early 1700s, and consciously modelled on Amsterdam. Hammershøi took pleasure in the knowledge that he was living in a house like those of the Dutch masters whom he so admired.
Although his work adopts some of the qualities of both Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) and James Whistler (1834–1903), Hammershøi was part of an emerging Symbolist movement, in which the isolation and alienation of modern life were dominant themes. His repeated portrayal of figures within this setting conveys a sense of distance from the viewer; separation; containment. Their inner thoughts cannot be known.
There are three doors in the painting. The central door opens onto a human figure in the middle passage. The space in which she is standing is undetermined as to its use. Where the passage leads is ambiguous. The door on the right perhaps opens from the outside. The third door leads to a room with a window full of light that is the middle space’s sole source of illumination. Aside from the open doors, there is little furniture in the rooms; only a single wooden chair and a single ill-defined portrait hung on the wall above it.
Our eyes are drawn to the central figure, who has her back to us. As in most of Hammershøi’s depictions of human figures, she does not meet our eyes. She is dressed in black, barely distinguished in the half-light of that middle space. What is she thinking? She remains immobile, beyond our reach, unknowable. This painting has no narrative; it is a carefully constructed set of objects from which Hammershøi extracts all content.
The symbolism of the open doors can be read in any way the viewer chooses. They can represent the possibility of escape from the suffocating domesticity of a woman’s role in the Danish society of that time; they can represent the soul’s need for movement outward toward the light; they can represent nothing. The imagination of the artist has left us free to construct our own interpretation, though what the painting seems to conjure is in stark contrast to the dynamic personal interaction of our Lukan passage, which promises ‘good gifts’, and ‘the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 11:13).
Facos, Michelle and Thor J. Mednick (eds). 2015. The Symbolist Roots of Modern Art (Farnham: Ashgate)
The One Who Knocks, And The One Who Answers
Commentary by Dana English
In contrast to Wilhelm Hammershøi’s painting elsewhere in this exhibition, with doors suggestive but mysterious, the single door in William Holman Hunt’s painting has clear significance. Hunt inscribed the frames of many of his paintings with a scriptural verse to guide the reader towards the meaning he intended. The verse he appended to The Light of the World is from Revelation 3:20:
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Hunt painted an illustration of the Lukan passage in The Importunate Neighbour, of 1895. It is a much more impassioned depiction of a man throwing himself against a barred and locked door—a great contrast to the Hammershøi painting with which it is nearly contemporary. But The Light of the World, first painted a half-century earlier (and eventually in three versions), became more famous, defining the entirety of Hunt’s achievement.
Hunt’s conversion to the Christian faith is ‘recorded’ in The Light of the World. His own religious conviction is reflected in this visit by Christ to the human soul, long-locked to divine illumination—and therefore redemption. In the midst of the darkness Christ bears light: it emanates from his lantern and from the halo around his head which highlights his crown of thorns. The dawn is about to break. His upraised hand is not deterred by the knotted vegetation that has grown up around the closed door and its rusted nails. But it is the directness of Christ’s gaze toward the viewer that has transfixed so many.
Why was (and is) this painting so extraordinarily popular? Why did it elicit the response from the public that it did? The last version of the painting, to which assistants contributed (Hunt’s sight was failing by 1904), was sent on a world tour from 1905–07. The majority of the population of Australia viewed it in reverence and silence.
Perhaps those who saw it hoped that if they found it within themselves to open the door, they would also find Christ waiting.
Landow, George P. 1979. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (New Haven: Yale University Press)
______. 1982. ‘Shadows Cast by The Light of the World: William Holman Hunt's Religious Paintings, 1893–1905’, The Art Bulletin, 64: 646–55
Maas, Jeremy. 1984. Holman Hunt's ‘The Light of the World’ (New Haven: Scholar Press)
Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino and Andrea Alessi :
The Chapel of the Blessed St John of Trogir, 1468 , Various dimensions
Vilhelm Hammershøi :
Interior from the Home of the Artist, 1899 , Oil on canvas
William Holman Hunt :
The Light of the World, 1853 , Oil on canvas
Opened And Closed Doors
Commentary by Dana English
Jesus uses a story drawn from the folk-traditions of Palestine to impart a deeper truth: that God, who is wholly good, cannot give anything but good to those who ask of Him.
The original tale borders on the humorous, creating a verbal scene with which its hearers could certainly sympathize—a tired man at the end of a working day, having secured the door and gathered his family into bed with him, is disturbed by a persistent knocking. He protests that he cannot come, or does not want to come, having completed all these arrangements. But his neighbour will not go away. Even though any quality of generosity or compassion fails him, he at last gets up and gives his neighbour what he asks; he is able to return, then, to the peace of his bed.
In the original tale, sheer persistence is rewarded. But Jesus turns this small story into something else. The two echoing verses that follow (Luke 11:9–10) intimate in two triads that if we ask, search, and knock, the answer will be unambiguous: we will receive, and find, and the door will be opened. But in reference to what? Not a request for a new dress or a new car.
In the matter of faith, Jesus’s listeners are to ask even for the highest gift God can grant, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because if we, as hearers of this parable—even qualifying for the term evil (Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:12)—if even we would only give good gifts to our children who ask of us, how much more will God give us the good things we need, if only we persist in asking?
In Luke’s Gospel, this passage follows the account of Jesus’s teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. It is an extension of a major Lukan theme: that persistence in prayer is a supreme quality of the faithful Christian life.
The theme of a door—opened, closed, or left half-open—is a powerful one in the history of art. Frequently, artists have used this motif to suggest passing through the door of death, prompting us to question what might lie beyond it. Is it a transformative act of re-birth, or a fateful dissolution into nothingness? It can be approached as a beckoning, a promise of the soul’s union with Christ, as in William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, or as a brooding blankness, if also a space of possibility, as in Wilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior from the Home of the Artist. The spiritello of the Trogir chapel emerges from darkness to light; the flaming torch that was needed to penetrate the darkness of the underworld is no longer needed in the brilliant light of the chapel. The putti above him dance among the saints and prophets.
It is a choice—to knock on a door, or to open a door to the knock of another; to ask for what we need from God. In the present, we are assured that our persistence will be rewarded, even by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We have yet to approach the door that demarcates the threshold of this life.
As we receive the impressions of these three works of art, we are asked, in each case, to contemplate our own course of action. The symbol of the door is dynamic—it invites us to open it, to go through it, to encounter what lies beyond it.
If, as in the parable of Jesus, we are willing to open the door, it is the transformation of resurrection that is promised.