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Portraits of a Prophet: Artistic Depictions of St. John the Baptist
Today in the Catholic Church is the Nativity (Birth) of St. John the Baptist, a particularly important feast day in the Latin Mass and Byzantine or Eastern liturgies. Jesus Christ said of John (Matt. 11:11), “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.” Coming from God Himself, that is a truly astounding tribute.
John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets and heralded the beginning of the New Testament with the coming of the Messiah, his own cousin Jesus (John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’s mother Mary were cousins). John was miraculously conceived in his parents’ old age, his conception was foretold by the Angel Gabriel both to his father Zachary and to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation, and he grew up to live in the wilderness as a harsh ascetic eating locusts and honey.
John grew famous preaching the coming of the kingdom of God and baptizing sinners, ultimately baptizing Jesus (Matt. 3, Mark 1, Luke 3) too and beholding the theophany or revelation of the Trinity during that baptism. John testified that Jesus was the “Lamb of God,” thus foreshadowing Jesus’s death on the cross, and some of Jesus’s apostles were first followers of John. St. John was later martyred by beheading at King Herod’s order after he incurred the wrath of Herod’s new wife for condemning their incestuous marriage.
Many artists have represented St. John the Baptist over the centuries, both singly and as baptizing Jesus. Below are just a few of the hundreds or even thousands of beautiful artistic depictions of the saint Jesus called the greatest of all men born of women:
Titian’s beautiful representation of John the Baptist above has many traditional symbols going back centuries but also has more elements both of realism and idealism than some pre-Renaissance works. John is painted in great detail to look as like a real man as possible, but he is also a particularly handsome and striking man. A lamb, the traditional symbol of innocence and purity, is at John’s feet—John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God” in John 1:29. John, as is typical of him in religious art, is wearing a cloth or partial tunic over the hair shirt he always wore as a form of penance. He holds a staff or stick that is an elongated cross. In the background is running water, probably supposed to represent the Jordan River where he baptized. John’s hand and finger are extended—pointing toward Christ, as was his role.
Above is the Baptism of Jesus Christ by Veronese. The Holy Spirit hovers above Jesus while light shines on him—one can almost hear God the Father saying, “Thou art my beloved son, in thee I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) The representation emphasizes the spiritual and artistic over the strictly literal, with a beautifully verdant background for the clear water and angels assisting at the baptism. Notice John the Baptist holds a staff in the form of a cross, and wears a hair shirt under his cloth.
Icons for particular events are often laid out in a very specific way, with individuals always standing in the same place and against the same backgrounds. The above icon shows a standard representation of Jesus’s Baptism, rich with meaning. Figurative rather than literal, we see Jesus standing in the river Jordan though the water does not cover him. John the Baptist is baptizing Jesus with his right hand as the Holy Spirit descends from Heaven and God the Father’s hand is visible at the top of the icon. One angel has a cloth over his hands, ready to assist Jesus.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, today is specifically the feast of John’s birth. The Angel Gabriel was sent from God to prophesy the birth of John to his father, Zachary, while Zachary was executing his priestly duty in the Temple. Since Zachary and his wife Elizabeth were elderly and childless, Zachary was surprised at the news they would have a son; but he also doubted God’s power to bring about this miracle, and so was struck dumb (Luke 1:5-25). But God, of course, did bring about the miracle, and it is the birth of St. John the Baptist we celebrate today, recounted in the Gospel of Luke (1:57-68, 76-79):
“Now Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come, and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and kinsfolks heard that the Lord had shewed his great mercy towards her, and they congratulated with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so; but he shall be called John.
And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came upon all their neighbours; and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill country of Judea.
And all they that had heard them laid them up in their heart, saying: What an one, think ye, shall this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him. And Zachary his father was filled with the Holy Ghost; and he prophesied, saying: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people…And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways: To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins: Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us: To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.”
St. John the Baptist, last of the prophets, pray for us!
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