Episode 3 | Birth and Naming | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

Episode 3 | Birth and Naming | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading


So this episode, we’re going to focus specifically
on the birth and naming of John the Baptist. And I wanted us to have a look at this polyptych
altarpiece, which isn’t currently on display. And I’ve asked the Gallery to bring it into
this room. As you can see, it’s raised up on blocks at the moment so we can have a better
look. Wonderful to get close to it and have a chance
to see it. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a very early
Florentine altarpiece. It was painted by an artist called Niccolò di Pietro Gerini. And it’s quite early, it’s 1387 and it’s an
extraordinary example of what we call a polyptych, so a multi-paneled altarpiece. You see in
the central scene here, we actually have the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, flanked
by two saints. This is a very unusual example. It’s actually the earliest example in the
history of art of this narrative scene taking place in this key area of an altarpiece. It’s
the sort of area you’d normally expect to find just a single standing or perhaps the
Virgin enthroned. What we have here on the bottom is called a predella, which is really
a box-like step. It raises the main tier of the altarpiece up, secures it. Normally, we
expect to find little narrative scenes of the lives of the saints who are represented
above. So it’s as if a scene that would normally
have appeared in that narrative strip has got bumped up to the status of the central
panel. Yes, upgraded as it were. And what better
scene than the Baptism? Absolutely. But because we’re focusing, specifically,
today on the Birth and Naming of John the Baptist, I thought we could focus specifically
on this scene in the predella. So in this predella panel, we have the annunciation to
Zacharias. This is how he finds out that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child. It’s a moment set in the sanctuary of the
Temple in Jerusalem, in the very heart of the Jewish cult. He, as a priest, would have
the job, along with the other priests, on a sort of rota, of going in to the sanctuary
with the task of sanctifying, making holy the altar. He’s using a thurible, which is
a sort of metal pot which burns incense in it, and swinging it in order to sanctify the
altar. I love the fact that the Baptist’s piece of equipment’s still used in Christian
worship. It would’ve been used at the altar above which this altarpiece was placed. So
the congregation would have seen the very action happening live that they also see represented
in the image by a Christian priest, rather than a Jewish one. This wonderful moment, I’m always struck by
the Angel Gabriel who’s entering stage left as it were here, swooping in with that gesture
of blessing. Just as in the annunciation of Gabriel to
Mary, isn’t it? It reminds you of that, this is a portentous
moment. That kind of action there, that swooping movement, guides the eye across the predella
to read from left to right. But it always strikes me, too, is that it captured a key
moment, particularly because that thurible, as you described, is swinging mid-air. Yes. It’s like suspended animation. It stops
in midair. And again I think that seems to have a wider implication because Zacharias
himself doesn’t believe the angel’s message. He thinks it’s impossible and as a punishment
for that, he is struck dumb. He loses the power of speech. There’s another moment of
arrested development just as the thurible is hanging in mid-air so his speech goes. Both are suspended. We have to wait for something to be completed. Well and actually, beautifully, following
from that scene, we immediately have, adjacent to it, the birth of John the Baptist. You
can see very tired looking Elizabeth reclining in her bed and being ministered to, as it
were, by her maid servants and the young John being bathed in the foreground. But what we don’t see is what gets Zacharias
back his power of speech. We don’t see the moment in the story that happens beyond the
birth. Yes. Actually, he remains mute until the naming
of his son. Which is about eight days after the birth. Yes. That’s not represented here but actually,
the National Gallery owns another predella panel by an artist called Giovanni di Paolo.
It’s slightly later than this one but perhaps we could get out of this uncomfortable squat
and go and have a look at it. Stretch our legs. Yes. That would be nice. So here, in Giovanni di Paolo’s predella,
we actually have a version of the same scene. We have the birth of John the Baptist again
but within that scene, we’ve included the naming. And actually, if you look, the scene
takes place in something that looks like an Italian Renaissance interior. A rather grand one and yet very sweetly domestic
at the same time, the baby being bathed. A servant warming a towel by the fire, ready
for that baby to be wrapped in. Those domestic details, as well as being beautifully observed
and very recognisable even to us today, seems to me, also have a theological aspect to them
and to relate very much to the Baptist and his future ministry. The water and fire, for
example, those very elemental things, both have strong associations with the Baptist.
The water is going to be the tool of his trade, if you like, as a baptiser. The fire relates
to his preaching, a lot of which is about judgment and he famously says that the wheat
and the chaff are going to be separated and the chaff will be burned. So we see in them
almost premonitions of what he’s going to go and do and talk about in his later life. Anticipations of his ministry, if you will
but yet, so beautifully, naturalistically included here because they don’t seem an unusual
inclusion at all. The unusual inclusion, actually, is Zacharias because this event of the naming only occurs eight days later, doesn’t it? They have been compressed together. Yes, exactly. The inclusion of Zacharias may
well be because the patron of this altarpiece is believed to have been called, Zacharias.
He may have stipulated that inclusion. But for us it’s very helpful because it reminds
us as we saw in the annunciation in the Gerini that Zacharias, in disbelief, he loses his
voice, doesn’t he? He disbelieves the angel. That’s his punishment. Exactly. Instead, when Elizabeth suggests
that the child’s name should be called, ‘John’, he has to confirm that in writing because
he can’t speak and then his voice is miraculously restored. And it’s a surprise because that
wasn’t a family name, was it? It’s not a family name and so everyone in
their circle might well have expected him to be called after his father, for example
or at least an established family name. And the rupture that’s represented by him being
given an unexpected name, ‘John’, again, I think, tells us something fascinating about
the way in which his whole life is a form of disruption of convention. He comes from
this very established priestly family at the heart of the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem
but he’s going to leave all that behind, go out into the wilderness and then all through
his life, representing new way of doing things. It’s as if the old order of things that he
comes from transforms, in his person, into a radically new order of things of which he’s
the herald. It’s almost as if he’s a hinge between two aeons.

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