Thursday, June 23, 2011

“He will be called John” – Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Gabriel Announces the Coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel 
John the Baptist is one of the greatest of all the saints: herald of the Messiah, preacher, admonisher of kings, Baptizer of Jesus, and all these events in his life have been widely depicted in art, but his birth has not been widely imaged.

One of the most complete painting cycles of the life of St. John the Baptist was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between 1485 and 1490.

"In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.
Once when he was serving as priest in his division's turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of (the) Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."
And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary.
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.
Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home."
(Luke 1:5-23)

Sometime during Elizabeth’s pregnancy Gabriel made another visit, to announce another impending birth, this time to a young virgin in the town of Nazareth. Unlike Zeccharias, she responded to Gabriel’s message with belief and acceptance, saying “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:26-38)

She then set off to visit Elizabeth, an event called the Visitation. 
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel
"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
(Luke 1:39-45)

"When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:57-58)
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of John the Baptist
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John."
But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God."
(Luke 1:59-64)
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Zechariah Confirms the Name of John
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel
Among Ghirlandaio’s young assistants at this time may have been a teenager who would grow up to become one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo Buonarotti.

© M. Duffy, 2011