Art of the Gospels: Part 4, John the Baptist

P1080299Representations of John the Baptist range from solitary figures, to evangelism, to baptisms. He did not conform to social standards with his hair-shirt and prepare-the-way message. Artists like someone who stands out.  Most paintings and sculptures of John the  Baptist display his gruff, non-conformity.  His eyes appear other-worldly, focused on the prophecies of what would become and piercing into one’s soul with his message of repent and be baptized.   This altar painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, in the Vatican,  has John the Baptist gesturing a blessing and carrying his staff with a cross on its top.  Even with his red robe, he is set apart from society by his dark complexion and untrimmed hair and beard.

P1080323In contrast, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri’s painting of John the Baptist, also in the Vatican, captures a different attitude, other than his fair skin.  John looks upward, as if connecting with some source of inspiration which we do not see.  His expression is meek, a servant verifying instruction.  He has his hair shirt and  cross-topped staff.  But, he appears very human and young, someone who can act with courage, but also may question his own determination.  Without his symbols, we might think he were a common shepherd.

John’s ministry also provides good storyline images culminating with his baptism of Jesus, which I will discuss later in Jesus’ narrative.   Eventually, John gets his head lopped off, giving even more blood-and-gore subject matter.  Though the story of John the Baptist’s demise is a side story, foreshadowing Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish and Roman leaders later, during Jesus’ ministry, I shall present two images at this time.

P1080306 - Version 3After baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist continued to preach in parallel to Jesus.  But, the Gospel accounts change their focus to follow Jesus’ early ministry activity.  John offends, Herodias, the wife of the Roman ruler, Herod (and also former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip).  She wants John killed for his insults.  At a feast that Herod hosts, Herodias’ daughter, Solome, pleases Herod with a dance (also suggesting that he might have wanted more than Herodias).  At the Vatican an altar panel, by Florentie School artists, shows Solome dancing for Herod’s guests.

P1080196Herod offers her any request.  Solome asks her mother what to request, and Herodias directs her to ask for John the Baptist’s head.  Bad advise from bad people. Solome adds that she wants it now, on a platter.  In the Borghese Gallery, Cavalier d’ Arpino composes the moment the executioner draws his sword to behead John the Baptist.  John’s robe and staff lay at his knees on the ground.  Two servant women look at John, while the executioner looks toward them.  All are carrying out their commands without question.



P1080307The second scene in the above altar panel has the servant presenting Solome with John’s head on the requested platter.  Everyone is pretty disgusted, except for Herodias.



About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Art of the Gospels: Part 4, John the Baptist

  1. Barneysday says:

    One aspect that I always was fascinated in why it was so necessary, was the extent of the blood and guts in religion. The catholics of my youth were notorious for all the relics of someones blood or bones. Thanks for sharing the story and photos.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I’m sure we could write books on this topic. I suspect that the gore establishes that these folks are above us every-day non-prophets going about our duties. One of my concerns about our “wars” in Irag and Afganistan is that we have spent a decade making martyrs for their cause, just as Rome did for Christian churches. While Jesus warned his followers about the persecution that they would experince, his message was till pretty simple: love God, Do unto others… an not violent.

      • Barneysday says:

        The relics were somehow meant to be remembrances of these individuals. To me, it was just more of the gore, pain, and punishment associated with the Catholic Church.

      • hermitsdoor says:

        Without the overt religious connotations, what is the difference from seeing splinters of Christ’s crib in Santa Maria Maggiore (or various saints body parts displayed in cathedrals throughout Europe), and going the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum to see fossils, mummies, pre-historic textiles, etc? We have our own form of “pilgrimages” and our own “religion” of science. The Catholic church and the Smithsonian are both interpreters of the artifacts.

  2. The Vicar says:

    Even John the Baptist had to wonder about this Messiah Jesus as he was being held in Herod’s prison (sent disciples to ask if he got it right). Being the voice in the wilderness doesn’t come with all the perks we might imagine.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      What? No news commentary spot for six-figures per year? No tweets about eating grasshoppers? Voted off the island (or prison) without endorsement contracts? That’s some harsh wilderness.

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