Episode 4 | Infancy | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London

Episode 4 | Infancy | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London


In this episode we’ll focus specifically on
the infancy of John the Baptist which is extremely interesting because if you go back to the
biblical accounts, his infancy isn’t described at all. No. We said, didn’t we, in relation to the
Visitation and Baptism picture that the Baptism is the second time they met. This is an imagined
earlier stage. An imagined earlier meeting of the young Christ
Child and John the Baptist. As a subject for painting, really only by the 15th century
does it become popular. And that’s because there was an author, a Dominican author called,
Domenico Cavalca who must have sensed this sort of absence in the literature. And so
he actually wrote a life of John the Baptist in the first half of the 14th century. And
this becomes a major resource for artists. They get all these wonderful anecdotal details
about what the Baptist got up to. So I thought I’d bring you down to look at this Garofalo
painting, he’s a painter from Ferrara in Italy and he paints this Holy Family in about 1520. You can see everyone present. You can identify
the Virgin on the right hand side holding the young Christ child. On the left, you have
both Elizabeth and Zacharias and the young John the Baptist. Here with this wonderful
headdress and flowers. He’s always got a way with animals too because
he’s got a bird in his hand, hasn’t he? Yes. Actually, that bird is a goldfinch. A symbol of the Passion of Christ and the
suffering of Christ. Yes. That’s because it was believed according
to tradition, that goldfinch swooped down as Christ was carrying the Cross up to Calvary
and plucked a thorn from the Crown of Thorns embedded in Christ’s forehead and was splashed
with his blood and so that’s how the goldfinch received that splash of red. Gosh, so that adds a new dark undercurrent
to the painting, doesn’t it? Yes. On the surface, perhaps all sweetness
where the young children are about to embrace but then you realise that actually, the young
child is reaching for that goldfinch held by John the Baptist. That ambiguity is very moving in a way because
he’s got a rather knowing face as if he’s wise before his time and he knows what’s to
come even at this tender age. And both fears it and knows he must also play his part in
preparing Christ for it. I feel as if the ambiguity in their gestures is reflected in
their standing on that rocking cradle. It’s like they’re on either side of the seesaw. Exactly, again, that surface is a sweet, tender
thing, beautiful child’s cradle. Then you realise that actually, it’s quite dangerous.
It’s rocky. And as they both step on it, the balance is going to switch here in this moment
where Christ grabs at his future, as it were, in the form of the goldfinch. Things are about
to change. This type of object was particularly popular in Florence, actually. Representations
of the young John the Baptist and the Christ Child were very popular, specifically the
Baptist because he of course, was and still is the patron saint of that city. In the National
Gallery, we have a beautiful Bronzino painting made in Florence of the young John the Baptist
with the Christ Child which I think we should look at next. Yes, let’s. So here’s Bronzino’s Holy Family. This is
painted in about 1540 in Florence, and is a really nice example of that tradition of
that popularity of the young John the Baptist. It’s the family is contracted and John is
really included in the embrace of the Virgin along with the Christ child. You can identify the young Baptist because
you see just at the very bottom, his camel hair shirt. He’s holding the baptismal cup.
But he’s also holding some strawberries, proffering strawberries to the young Christ child, you
can imagine, in his right hand. And usually, strawberries are associated with the fruit
of Paradise. So again this foreshadowing, as it were, or looking ahead to the next narrative
moment. You can see, actually, he’s lost one of his attributes. It’s been taken up by the
Christ child, the reed cross. The reed cross. It’s as if the things of their
future are their present playthings. Just as in Garofalo that we’ve looked at a moment
ago where the goldfinch was a foretaste of things to come, all of these things are anticipating
their future. The flowers, the garland of flowers that the Christ Child has on his head.
Does that anticipate the Crown of Thorns? I think it must. Again, something sweet but
we, the beholder, are completing the picture. We know that there’s more. Yes. As soon as we see that reed cross, we’d
think of the crucifixion. As soon as we see those delicate, sweet flowers, perhaps celebratory
flowers, we think about another crown that the child will wear. There’s something, a quite interesting detail
that’s hard to make out. But in the upper left hand corner, you’ll see in the landscape,
there seems to me to be some sort of monastic complex. It’s not part of the story, but yet
it anticipates the time after both the Christ Child and John the Baptist and Elizabeth and
the Virgin are dead. This will be the continuing, the remembering of that tradition through
ritual, through prayer, the commemoration. While Cavalca doesn’t mention these monastic
buildings in the early life of John the Baptist, he does mention that the young John was actually
present at the nativity of Christ. Here at the National Gallery we own a picture by a
Sienese artist called Sodoma that actually represents this very scene. And rather sweetly
it also includes the shepherds and in the very distance the imminent arrival of the
Magi. Gosh, so the full cast of characters. It’s a rather packed composition, yes. Very
unlike for example, our Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’, really restricts it down to
the main key players and focuses instead on the very close intimate relationship between
the young Baptist and the Christ Child. So here’s Leonardo’s famous Virgin of the
Rocks and you can see how it gets its name, this altarpiece, from its extraordinary, almost
primordial, landscape that the sacred figures are placed in. And you have the Virgin at
the centre and your eye moves beautifully around the painting; is guided through the
gestures that Leonardo has created. I love the way the Virgin is reaching her arm over and sort of protectively encompassing the young Baptist but she also seems to be presenting
him to the Christ Child here. And you can see that at a later moment, probably by Leonardo
himself he realised that the similarities between the Christ Child and the Baptist were
such that he had to add additional attributes to distinguish them a little bit. So we have
the inclusion of the halo on the Christ Child and the Baptist but also the addition of the
cross slung over the young Baptist’s shoulder. The similarity of these two figures becomes
an issue. It might have been a problem for viewers,
exactly, so he had to distinguish them a little bit further. But you can see already he wears
little furs and of course the Christ Child would be identifiable by his blessing gesture. It’s almost as if in that gesture of recognition
and blessing he’s acknowledging something that he will later in his life utter that
this figure, John the Baptist, is more than a prophet. The similarity too recalls the
fact that their birthdays were both celebrated from the very early centuries of the Christian
Church, the only two birthdays celebrated by the church until the Middle Ages. And indeed
his birthday is placed very specifically at the opposite end of the year from Christ’s
so significant was he. His is a sort of summer Christmas, it’s on the 24th of June, six months
away from Christmas Eve. There’s a specific reason too because the days after June the
24th, after midsummer, begin to get shorter and the days after Christmas begin to get
longer. That recollects the fact that the Baptist must decrease, as he says, in order
that Christ may increase. It’s a beautiful placing of these birthdays. And as I look
at these two children I’m put in mind of the beginnings of their lives, their births. This landscape is extraordinary and no one
really other than Leonardo sets his sacred figures in something so otherworldly. But
it does call to mind a time before humans populated the earth, before they started their
constructions and I wonder if there might also be some allusion to the wilderness? Yes, it’s outside time as it were, untouched
by human artifice as you say and yet that’s also a feature of the earthly wilderness and
that’s where this young Baptist is going to make his way eventually, begin his preaching
and finally baptise Jesus Christ. And it’s the wilderness that’s the subject of our next episode.

3 Replies to “Episode 4 | Infancy | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London”

  1. Leonardo da Vinci is great..His paintings are about John the Babtist and Jesus,.they are simblings.They have only one Father.

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