LONDON (AP) -- When William Holman Hunt painted ''The Light of the World'' a century ago, there was little question that the public would understand the figure of Christ knocking at a closed door.
Indeed, the painting was so popular that it went on tour to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and was widely reproduced.
At the dawn of a new century, with religious observance in Britain in steep decline, there is no longer the confidence that the picture speaks to its audience. In the National Gallery's new exhibition, ''Seeing Salvation,'' the curators feel obliged to argue that you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate pictures of Jesus.
''In the hands of the great artists, the different moments and aspects of Christ's life become archetypes of all human experience,'' Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, writes in the exhibition catalog.
''The Virgin nursing her son conveys the feelings every mother has for her child; they are love. Christ mocked is innocence and goodness beset by violence. In the suffering Christ, we encounter the pain of the world, and Christ risen and appearing to Mary Magdalene is a universal reaffirmation that love cannot be destroyed by death.
''These are pictures that explore truths not just for Christians, but for everybody,'' MacGregor writes.
The exhibition, which continues at the Trafalgar Square gallery through May 7, ranges from simple carvings of the Good Shepherd from Roman catacombs to Salvador Dali's ''Christ of Saint John of the Cross,'' a powerful image of the crucified Christ floating above the world, painted in 1951.
The exhibition explores how artists struggled with portraying both man and God, as in Andrea Mantegna's portrait from about 1500, which shows the young Jesus striking the pose of a Roman emperor. One hand holds an orb, symbolizing worldly power, and the other holds an olive branch.
Another painting about 80 years later, by Ludovico Carraci, shows St. Francis cradling the infant Jesus, whose evident helplessness emphasizes his humanity.
A 17th-century drawing by Jacopo Negretti of a bleeding Christ standing in a chalice, supported by angels, graphically illustrates the doctrine of the communion wine being his true blood.
One of the most striking portrayals of Christ in the exhibition doesn't show a human at all. ''Agnus Dei,'' Francisco de Zurbaran's painting of about 1635, depicts a lamb lying on a bench, its four hooves tied together. The lamb's chin rests gently on the bench and its half-closed eye signifies its submission to the coming sacrifice.
Many of the images are filled with symbolism, including ''The Light of the World,'' which was loaned to the gallery by St. Paul's Cathedral.
''The closed door was the obstinately shut mind; the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrance of sloth ... the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance,'' Holman Hunt wrote.
The exhibition of 79 images was mostly drawn from the National Gallery's own collection. MacGregor notes that about a third of all the pictures have Christian themes, with half of those portrayals of Christ.
MacGregor worked with the British Broadcasting Corp. on a four-part television series, also called ''Seeing Salvation,'' which will air in Britain in April. The series moves outside the gallery to examine images in context as objects of worship.
John McEwen, art critic for The Sunday Telegraph, said the exhibition has both religious and artistic significance.
''It affirms Christianity. It must be the most important show of the year for that alone,'' McEwen commented. ''I think it is very important because it re-establishes that pictures and objects of art have content as well as form.''
More information about the exhibition is available on the National Gallery's Web site: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk
End Adv for March 23-26 and Thereafter
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