Monday, December 5, 2011

A Voice Crying In the Wilderness, Second Sunday of Advent

El Greco, St. John the Baptist
Greco-Spanish, c.1600
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum
“John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.” 
(Mark 1:4-6)

Excerpt from Gospel for Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Apart from his very necessary appearance in images of the Baptism of Christ, St. John the Baptist often appears in several other roles in the history of western art.

Among them are:
• the slightly older baby cousin of Jesus,
• the goatskin clad “wild man” of the Judean desert,
• the preacher and teacher described in the Gospels,

Some years ago we looked at some of the paintings of the baby cousin of Jesus (here). Earlier this year I looked at some of the iconography of his most famous utterance “Behold the Lamb of God” on his recognition of the adult Jesus (here). Today I will be looking at John as the desert wild man. 
Andrea del Castagno, St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1442
Venice, San Zaccarie

The image of St. John dressed in a camel skin and leather belt is certainly one that has offered a spur to the imagination of artists. There is a long tradition of images, both in Italy and in the north, that show St. John the Baptist in the desert. The emphasis in these works is often on St. John’s appearance and odd attire. He is shown as thin and haggard (locusts and wild honey sounds like a somewhat inadequate diet). The camel hair garment is usually shown as nothing more than a hairy skin tied by a belt.

Most often he is shown alone either in a landscape or in an indeterminate space. Occasionally he is shown in relation to a lamb (a reference to his statement on recognizing Jesus “Behold the Lamb of God”).

Donatello, St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1457
Siena, Cathedral

Aside from his attire and "wild" appearance another attribute is usually a cross made of straight sticks, possibly reeds, tied together at their intersection. He often seems to point, either at the Lamb or at some more distant point, possibly at an image of Christ or of the Lamb that was located nearby when the picture was in its original location.

Among the images showing John on his own are those by Andrea del Castagno (above), in which he holds a scroll with the words “Ecce Agnus Ecce Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi” (“Behold the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world”), and a famous bronze statue by Donatello (at left).

Most images of the “wild man” type show John in proximity with a lamb, symbol of the Lamb of God. Among them are:

Dieric Bouts the Younger,
St. John the Baptist
Netherlandish, ca. 1470
Munich, Alte Pinakothek
A painting by the Netherlandish painter Dirk Bouts the Younger of ca. 1470 (at right).  Here 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. At his side is a lily plant, the traditional symbol of purity.

Geertgen tot sint Jans,
St. John the Baptist
Dutch, ca. 1490
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

Another by the Dutch painter, Geertgen tot sint Jans from 1490-95 (at left) shows a pensive St. John seated in the wilderness landscape with the Lamb at this side.

In yet another, by the painter Hieronymus Bosch from around 1500,  St. John is shown reclining on a rock in a landscape that is alive with some curiously sinister looking plant life. Nonetheless, John covertly points to the Lamb that sits on the other side of the rock.
Hieronymus Bosch, St. John the Baptist
Dutch, undated
Madrid, Museo Lazaro Galdiano

The two paintings are clearly related to each other compositionally. 

Finally, a painting by Titian from about 1542. 
Titian, St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1542
Venice, Accademia

A few images of St. John the Baptist as the “wild man” are interesting in that they present him as a child or youth, instead of an adult.

Master of the Life of St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1330-1340
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

Among them is a panel by the Master of the Life of St. John the Baptist, which shows two scenes. In the first scene the very young St. John, already dressed in camel hair, is being led into the desert by an angel and in the second, just to the right of the first, we see the older St. John praying on his knees.

Domenico Ghirlandaio
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella,
Tornabuoni Chapel

In another painting, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, part of the cycle of the life of St. John the Baptist in the Tornabuoni Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the youthful St. John is seen striding out into the wilderness and leaving the settled townscape behind.

Andrea del Sarto, St. John Baptist
Italian, ca. 1523
Florence, Pitti Palace Museum

Another Florentine artist, Andrea del Sarto, painted a youthful St. John, posed in a moment of thought.

Jusepe Ribera, St. John Baptist
Spanish, 1644-1647
Madrid, Prado Museum

More than a century later, the Spanish-Italian painter Jusepe Ribera, adopted the same youthful figure in a more relaxed, even playful, posture for his St. John.

Jacop del Sellaio, St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1480
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

The close relationship between St. John the Baptist and the city of Florence, of which he is the patron saint, is underlined by the rather unusual image in the somewhat awkward picture made of Jacopo del Sallaio around 1480.

In this painting, St. John is seen in the foreground, while the city of Florence is seen very clearly in the background. It is as if St. John is standing on one of the hills overlooking Florence from the other bank of the Arno. His right hand is raised in what could be interpreted as either a blessing or a protective gesture.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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