Episode 10 | Power and Judgment | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

Episode 10 | Power and Judgment | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading


Jenny, this is our last episode and I thought
we could begin it here in Westminster Abbey, which is the place of worship of English Monarchs.
Where most English Monarchs were crowned and many of them are buried. I wanted particularly
to look at this image, which is of Richard II the 14th century English king. You might wonder why on earth we’re looking
at an image of Richard II in a series on John the Baptist. There is a particular reason
for that which is that Richard had an unusual devotion to John. He was born on the 6th of January, which amongst
other things is a day on which the church remembers Jesus’s baptism by John. He in fact,
nearly died according to the accounts, and so the midwives did an emergency baptism and
used the name John because of its association with that day. Then of course, he survived
and was renamed Richard. From that point on, throughout his life he retained this very
strong sense that the Baptist was his protector and someone with whom he had a special relationship
to the extent that many years later when he was king and he’d had a falling out with the
authorities in the city of London in the east of the city, they knew that the way to his
heart, to win him back, would be to do something related to John the Baptist. So they staged
for him a tableau vivant of John the Baptist in the wilderness in the middle of the Strand
at Temple Bar and populated it with dense vegetation and wild animals, and even some
relics of the Baptist. Richard was fascinated by this. He spent a great deal of time looking
at it and indeed they were reconciled. It worked, it was a good ploy. I’m struck by the scale of this image because
for the 1390s there’s hardly anything comparable. I was reading a little bit about the construction
of the panels that it’s painted on and it seems that it was once part of a larger construction.
It was very likely part of the king’s pew because it was documented close to the altar
within the sanctuary. That struck me as very interesting because of course, it represents
the king on his throne and what it represents actually was what it once formed. So a throne in the picture, but part of the
throne itself, and the king in the picture often an actual king in front of it. And if we imagine it not here — not close
to the West Door on a pier — but in that most charged space, most holy space within
the church, you can imagine this wonderful set up between the earthly power and celestial power. Absolutely. And it is an extraordinarily powerful
image isn’t it? The sheer scale of it of course, but the fact of the throne, the fact he’s
in his coronation robes, that he’s carrying emblems of power, the orb and the scepter,
and the fact that he’s facing directly out at us from the picture. And it’s a curious
thing to think about kingly power in relations to the Baptist, given that he’s a victim of
kingly power. Of course. But of course the power misused by Herod and
I wonder whether one of the reasons that a king like Richard might have wanted to be
seen in the company of the Baptist, to have been associated in people’s minds with the
Baptist is precisely because he wanted to be not Herod, a sort of anti-Herod. A king
properly exercising his power. And in other ways, too, kings might have seen a relevance
of the Baptist to themselves in that as he prepared the way for Christ’s first coming,
their just rule and their bringing in the values and principles that the Kingdom of
God might have been seen as the preparation for Christ’s second coming. In that way, although
he’s dressed in very fine clothing, not camel hair by any means, he’s Baptist-like as a
preparer again for Christ. And I think any Christian monarch might have had reason to
think of themselves in that way. According to some traditions John the Baptist,
even after his death, prepared the way for Christ. He went down into the underworld and
he dwelt there until Christ came down and rescued some of the souls. So often, John
is associated with the Last Judgment and with the preparing of the souls for entry into
Heaven. This is something that artists pick up on. I’m thinking in particular of an altarpiece
by Giovanni dal Ponte in the National Gallery in which he describes, he represents John
the Baptist already in the underworld as Christ descends holding the banner of the Resurrection,
descending down into Hell. That’s fascinating. So does all over again
what he’s done already on earth, but this time in the underworld for those people who
are also waiting for Christ to come. So always these associations with death and
resurrection whether it be through baptism, preparing the way in the underworld and I
imagine that these were things that rulers such as Richard II were also anticipating,
their own deaths. Yes and also that their judgment is an anticipation
of the Last Judgment too, that their exercising judgment until Christ’s final Judgment. Actually, that reminds me that this isn’t
the only representation of Richard II in the Abbey. He’s actually buried here and there’s
an extraordinary tomb sculpture that’s all gilded. So we know very well what he looked
like. Actually, there’s some contemporary accounts that describe him as rather young
and beautiful looking and extremely tall. He was apparently about six feet, which for
the 1390’s is extraordinarily tall. But perhaps one of the most famous images of Richard II
is at the National Gallery in the Wilton Diptych where he’s accompanied by his patron Saint
John The Baptist. Perhaps it would be most appropriate to end on that image. And make a last visit to the Gallery. Yes, let’s. Ben, this is one of the jewels of the National
Gallery’s collection, the Wilton Diptych. We actually don’t know who painted it. It
may well have been an English or a French painter painting around 1395 to ’99. And the
construction is such that these two panels as you can see are hinged at the centre so
this object can be opened and closed like a book. And for that reason it makes it very
portable. This must have been commissioned for the private devotions of Richard II who
you see kneeling here. He kneels with his hands open in a gesture of prayer. He’s identifiable
not only because of his similarity. … He’s recognisably the Richard we saw in Westminster Abbey. … to the portrait in Westminster. But he
also wears his own symbol, which is the white hart. Can you see that brooch on his chest?
And the white hart actually, if you look closely, appears in the pattern of his mantle in that
exquisitely gold-tooled mantel that he wears. And actually appears again in the entire retinue
of the angels in Heaven that we have here in the right hand side. So they’re wearing his livery which suggests
this is quite a high aspiration on the part of Richard that the court of heaven will be
dressed in his own livery. Indeed. And actually he’s in very good company
here. You see that on the left hand side we have King Edmund he’s holding the arrow with
which he was martyred. You also have Kind Edward who’s holding a ring, or rather large
ring and there’s a wonderful story about that ring. He actually gave it to a poor man or
so he thought, who actually happened to be John the Evangelist. In disguise. Exactly. And most importantly for us, John
the Baptist here holding his lamb presents King Richard to the heavenly retinue. And
it’s beautiful the way the diptych opens up, because actually the presentation occurs across
the divide of the diptych so that he is being presented into the court of heaven. A divide between Earth and Heaven expressed
in the very structure of the object. Beautiful, isn’t it? It is. And so we see John holding the lamb,
the Agnus Dei in Latin, the Lamb of God which is a symbol of Christ. One of his famous statements
as we’ve seen in the scroll is he sometimes carries it and says “Behold the Lamb of God.”
And it’s as if Christ is present twice in the image. Both there in the arms of his mother
and again in the arms of the Baptist in the form of the lamb. And when the diptych was
closed they almost map on to each other. That’s true. The fact that he’s with two kings and two
English kings and two saintly English kings seems to me really important. Both of them
represent a sort of model of how to be a godly king and have already gained the status of
saints. Edward the Confessor of course, is the one buried at the heart of Westminster
Abbey. There are chapels to Edmund and indeed John the Baptist facing one another on either
side of the shrine. So this is hugely a significant choice for Richard to have his three favorites
in a sense with him. Likening himself to them and maybe hoping
that in the afterlife he may well be like them. He’ll win the halo himself. It’s hard not to see three kings together
and think of another three kings. It’s the magi of course, arriving at the birth,
just after the birth of the Christ Child and here they are present at the kingdom of Heaven
with the Christ Child there as well. And of course, that feast day of the Epiphany of
that moment is January 6th. The birthday of Richard II and also the day
that the Baptism of Christ was often commemorated in the church. You can see all of these elements coming together,
becoming part of the personal iconography of Richard II. The Baptist’s plainness of clothing stands
out even more starkly here than in many of his depictions, because he’s surrounded by
kings. It’s an extraordinary thing that this saint both keeps the company of kings and
yet he’s a man of the people, a man for everyone. Very humble looking here. Very humble and on the side of justice for
the ordinary person. Some of the descriptions of his preaching in Luke’s gospel especially
describe him as, if you like, almost somebody to whom people come for advice on matters
of justice. He says if you have two cloaks give one to the poor and keep one for yourself.
Do the same with your money. The tax collectors come and ask him what they should do and he
says “Basically don’t collect more than is due.” Soldiers come to him and say “How should
we live a righteous life and he says “Don’t extort money, be satisfied with your wages.”
He’s almost like a sort of popular judge, giving verdicts on matters of ordinary everyday
justice. I wonder whether in that respect too, Richard might have looked to him as a
model for how to administer justice in his realm? He’s suggesting he too is a just ruler, isn’t
he, as well in that? Speaking of his realm it’s quite interesting, when this diptych
was cleaned in 1992, if you look at the very top of this flag of the resurrection, the
white banner with the red cross, it’s often the flag of that Christ holds that he’s resurrected
and stepping out of the tomb. When this was cleaned in 1992, that orb, that silver orb
at the very top was cleaned and examined, it was discovered that there’s actually a
little green island represented on there. That must be a representation of England.
So we have a representation of England on the top of the flag of the Resurrection, within
the kingdom of Heaven surrounded by angels. The Virgin and Child there, serving as the
protectors of this island. Under their special care. Yes. And Richard, with the help of the Baptist
who’s so kind of touchingly and reassuringly… Presenting him forward. … presenting him, is going to make that
transition I suppose to the protection of the Virgin himself with the Baptist’s help. From the earthly to the … From the earthly to the heavenly realm. And
the Baptist is able to do that because as we’ve seen so often he has this very, very
special status. He’s very close to the heart of heaven and in some ways he’s even an angelic
figure, the one who first appeared as one sent proclaiming the coming of Christ. So
he represents one who can cross the boundary between the two realms of Earth and Heaven,
who can bring those who wish to, with him. And I think as we come to the end of this
series of episodes, it’s a good place to leave him: in the heart of Heaven, in the company
of the Virgin and the Christ Child as one of the most special and most celebrated saints
of Christian tradition. So let’s leave him in the company of angels.
We can leave him for visitors to the National Gallery to enjoy for themselves

4 Replies to “Episode 10 | Power and Judgment | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading”

  1. Thank You so much for this fantastic Serial . I've found so much great informations and proposals on asociations field on my collecting material for personal intention to do the head of The Baptist by my own. Would You mind to give me any coment on my work since I am total amather and am astonished by what is happening to me? Thanks so much again for this BBC pearl!

  2. Wonderful series. Dr. Sliwka and Professor Quash have an excellent chemistry and a very natural and enjoyable way of presenting the information. Can't wait to get back to the national gallery this week to revisit the works mentioned and explore them in more depth. Thank you very much!

  3. Thank you so much for producing this series! I have chosen St. John the Baptist as my confirmation name/ Saint and this has helped me with that decision.

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