Tuesday, December 13, 2011

John, the Baptizer, Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

St. John Baptist Preaching
from a Book of Hours
French, 1480-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 25, fol. 234r

"And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, "Who are you?"
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, "I am not the Christ."
So they asked him,
"What are you then? Are you Elijah?"
And he said, "I am not."
"Are you the Prophet?"
He answered, "No."
So they said to him,
"Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?"
He said:
"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
'make straight the way of the Lord,'
as Isaiah the prophet said."
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
"Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?"
John answered them,
"I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing."

John 1:19-28
 Excerpt from Gospel for Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Last week the Gospel reading suggested the iconographic topic of St. John the Baptist as the “wild man of the desert” and we looked at images of that subject. Today’s Gospel, a segment from the Gospel of John, which is the reading for the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B, refers to John’s testimony about his role as baptizer, from which he receives his descriptive name, the Baptist. And, it is John’s role as baptizer that we will look at today.

While images of John as the “Wild Man” focus directly on him, images of John in the role of baptizer frequently focus on the crowds and the landscape surrounding him as much as upon him. Occasionally, they refer to his proclamation about “the one who is coming after me”. In this essay I will be looking at some images of John preaching and baptizing individuals other than Jesus. (Images of the Baptism of Jesus form a separate subject, with its own iconography.)

Early scenes of John preaching show him with just a few listeners.  John often is shown holding a lamb or with a lamb in the background, a reference to John's cry of recognition on seeing Jesus.

St. John Baptist Preaching
from the Taymouth Hours
English, 1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 104v

Jean Fouquet, St. John Baptist Preaching
Addition to Hours of Simon de Varie
French (Tours), ca. 1455
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 74 G 37a, fol. 4v

Later images show a larger crowd.
St. John the Baptist Preaching
from the Speculum historiale of Vincentius Bellovacensis
French, 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 216v

Pieter Brueghel Elder, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Dutch , 1566
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Francesco Bassano, St. John Baptist Preaching
Italian, 1570
Venice, San Giacomo dall'Oro

Alessandro Allori, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Italian, 1601-1603
Florence, Galleria Palatina (Pitti Palace)

Baciccio, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Italian, c. 1690
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Italian, 1732-1733
Bergamo, Cappella Colleoni
Occasionally, Jesus is shown,approaching in the background. 
Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

John is sometimes shown in the act of baptising others than Jesus.  

St. John Baptising
from a Bible historiale
French (Paris), Beginning of 15th century
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Francais 4, fol. 172v

Nicolas Poussin, St. John Baptising
French, ca. 1635
Paris, Louvre
Sometimes he is no more than a minor background figure, a mere excuse for the presentation of multiple figures or of a landscape.

Joachim Patinir, Landscape with St. John the Baptist Preaching
Flemish, c. 1515
Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Abraham Bloemaert, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Dutch, 1580-1600
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In this picture St. John is barely noticeable.  He is standing under the tree at the center left.  

Bartolomeus Breenburgh, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Dutch, 1634
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Other images illustrate the incident of the interrogation of John the Baptist by the representatives of the Jewish authorities, described by John the Evangelist in this Sunday's Gospel.
Veronese, St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1562
Rome, Galleria Borghese

Most imagery related to John as the Baptist is actually the image of the Baptism of Jesus which, as I said above, is a separate subject with its own iconography.

I will close with this famous anthem by the Jacobean composer, Orlando Gibbons, sung by a choir of men and boys.

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