Episode 1 | Introduction | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading


Ben, I can hardly believe it but we’ve been
teaching this collaborative MA between the National Gallery and King’s College London
now for four years and focusing specifically on Christianity and the arts, but in particular
on the figure of John the Baptist. And I’ve really enjoyed exploring the National Gallery’s
collection. And I think at my last count I’m at over 120 figures of John the Baptist. So
it just shows his popularity across centuries and in different geographic locations. And he’s a hugely important figure in Christian
tradition, too. Because he’s the one who arrives to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, Jesus
Christ. He is the forerunner, as he describes himself, preparing the way of the Lord. In
that sense he’s one of the very first saints and one of the very first figures who appears
in the New Testament. The Christian bible is divided into the Old Testament, or Hebrew
Bible, which it inherited from Judaism and the New Testament, which begins to tell the
story of Christ. And the life of Christ particularly concentrated in the four Gospels within the
New Testament. And John the Baptist is one of the very first characters to appear in
the gospel narratives, precisely because he’s the forerunner. And yet he also looks back
to that tradition of prophets in the Old Testament. In that way he sort of represents both continuity
and change, doesn’t he? And I think that’s captured very beautifully in Carlo Crivelli’s
15th century altarpiece that we’re looking at. If you have a look here, John the Baptist
is represented on the left. And what I’m struck by in particular is the way that he stands
on one particular ground, which as you see is at the banks of a river.And how that marks
a disruption between the other saints of the same altarpiece who stand on these very elaborate
marble parapets. So he’s both part of this gathering of saints and set apart. He always stands out it seems to me, as quite
unlike any other saint, so distinctive. You can see any number of bishop saints and you
have to work quite hard to work out which it is, or monk saints or the saints of virgin
martyrs. The Baptist you could never mistake for anyone other than himself. And I think that’s something that artists
have picked up on. They wanted representations of those saints to be immediately recognisable,
not least perhaps from the back of a church, from the congregation who couldn’t get up
close. Actually if we do get up close and have a little look at this altarpiece I can
show you a few of the details. The Baptist, because of all the time he spent
in the desert, is often represented as quite thin and emaciated with long wavy hair. But
possibly the most recognisable attribute is he wears this extraordinary camel skin, which
he is said to have clothed himself in. But there’s a few other attributes that we have
in the Crivelli that literally point our way forward to different aspects of his life.
Mainly that pointing gesture which you’ll see repeated over and over in representations
of John. It’s the perfect symbol for his whole preparatory
ministry. He’s a pointer and he’s pointing to Christ — that’s his job as a saint. Here
it’s wonderfully achieved by the fact that he’s pointing to words that refer to Christ
on his scroll, the Latin words Ecce Agnus Dei which means ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’
The ‘Lamb of God’ was John’s description of Christ, the one who would die to take away
the sins of the world. And those are really important words for Christians through the
centuries too, because they’re uttered in the context of the Mass or the Eucharist.
It’s as if some of the Baptist most important words are immortalised in the regular worship
of Christians, at the point where the bread and wine are consecrated and represent the
presence of Christ among the congregation. Of course, John often carries a reed cross
in allusion to Christ’s crucifixion. The fact that it’s made from reeds refers back to his
time by the River Jordan. That’s where John the Baptist did his baptising. And this representation
of the water in the foreground of this panel represents that very river. Interestingly,
Crivelli has included this little riverbank on our side, on the viewer’s side of the painting,
so that he’s situating us on the banks of the river Jordan facing John. Wonderful. It really brings us into the picture.
Not only into the presence of John but into the idea of baptism itself, as if we could
step into the water and be baptised by him ourselves. Almost an invitation. And most often John
is represented in the act of baptising Christ and we’re very lucky at the National Gallery
because we have one of the most famous representations of that baptism by Piero della Francesca.
I’ll show it to you. The Piero della Francesca Baptism was painted
about just over 20 years before the Crivelli. It was also an altarpiece for a church in
Piero’s native city called Borgo Sansepolcro, in Tuscany. It must have been for an altar
dedicated to John the Baptist to have this as such a prominent feature at the centre
of the altarpiece. And you see even from here look how it pulls you towards it. Here in Piero’s Baptism altarpiece, we see
probably the most represented scene in the life of John the Baptist, when we don’t have
him represented singly, as we did in the Carlo Crivelli altarpiece. This would be the key
moment; this is the culminating moment, if you will, of John’s life, isn’t it?
He’s been baptising others until this point, but at this point when Christ
arrives to receive John’s baptism, and that’s both the crowning point of John the Baptist’s
career; it’s why we call him “John the Baptist.” Precisely. And also, the beginning of Christ’s public
ministry. So it’s a crucial turning point for both of them. And It’s quite interesting, too, that this
is the moment where actually, Christ is the central figure. His ministry begins; he becomes
more and more important, and John’s, lesser so, but always, as we will see, in every moment,
John is always that step ahead. He’s preparing the way for Christ. That’s fascinating, because he is a preparer
and precursor at every point. He’s just one step ahead, as you say, of Christ in terms
of the first to have a miraculous birth, the first to preach, the first to baptise. Uniquely apart from Christ, we have his whole
life told within the New Testament from beginning to end. Not even the Virgin Mary has that
privilege. It’s perhaps why he’s been such an important
focus for artists and patrons who represent every scene, every episode from his life.
And what we’ll do in the next nine episodes is actually examine National Gallery pictures,
which represent key moments from his life from the beginning to end and maybe explore
why he was so important for so many different people over the centuries.

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