Sunday, January 16, 2011

Behold the Lamb!

Pietro Bernini, St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1612-1615
Rome, S. Andrea della Valle

"John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." 
(John 1:29)

Not only do these words from the Gospel of John provide the text for the triple acclamation/supplication prior to Communion in every Mass they also provide the image behind many works of art.

Most interesting in several ways is the relief (ca. 1612-15) by Pietro Bernini from the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle in Rome. Pietro Bernini was both an important sculptor in his own right and the father and teacher of the great GianLorenzo Bernini (the genius behind most of the sculpture and architecture of Baroque Rome, including such masterworks as the Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri in St. Peter's, the fountain in Piazza Navona and the colonnade in St. Peter's Square). 

Dirk Bouts, St. John the Baptist
Netherlandish, ca. 1470
Munich, Alte Pinakotek
This relief by Pietro belongs to a long traditon of images, both in Italy and in the north, that show St. John the Baptist accompanied by a lamb.

One example, by the Netherlandish painter Dirk Bouts of ca. 1470, is shown at the right. Here St. John points to a miniature lamb, seated on the Scriptures, an image referring both back to John's statement at Jesus' Baptism and forward to the book of Revelation.

Another by Hieronymous Bosch, shows a reclining but meditative St. John pointing to a lamb that lies on the ground in front of him, while rather weird and somewhat sinister looking plants grow up around them.
Hieronymous Bosch, St. John the Bpatist in the Wilderness
Madrid, Museo Lazaro Galdiano

El Greco, St. John the Baptist
Greco-Spanish, ca. 1600
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum

Closer to Pietro Bernini's own time, the Greco-Spanish artist, El Greco, portrayed John again as a meditative figure, engaged in inner realms, while the lamb becomes more of a symbolic attribute than an actual reference to Jesus.

But, Pietro's approach is typical of the heightened urgency to communicate that was a mark of the earliest Baroque. These paintings and sculptures sought urgently to make contact with the viewer and to urge them to participate with them in a spatial experience. They frequently look directly out at the flesh and blood audience, which today includes us, and direct us to some other object, distant from both the viewer and the work of art. In the case of this Pietro Bernini St. John, his limbs projecting far beyond the wall plane, directs us to the altar of the Barberini Chapel. There the true Lamb of God appears whenever Mass is celebrated or the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle. This St. John truly urges us to "Behold the Lamb of God"!

Jusepe Ribera, St. John the Baptist
Spanish, 1644-1647
Madrid, Museo del Prado

The activism of Pietro's St. John is underlined by comparing it to the slightly later St. John the Baptist by the Spanish Baroque artist, Jusepe Ribera.  Ribera's St. John does make eye contact with the viewer, but his interaction with the lamb in the picture is not the urgent appeal to the viewer to "Behold the Lamb of God!".  This lamb seems more a pet than a saviour.

This activism, this breaking out of the visual plane that habitually distances the viewer from the work of art, was continued and refined by Pietro's son, GianLorenzo. Many of his works include at least one figure who directly challenges the viewer to enter into the visionary experience, made present before us in marble or bronze.