Episode 5 | Wilderness | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London

Episode 5 | Wilderness | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London


So this episode, we’ll explore John the Baptist’s
time in the wilderness. I think one of the ideal pictures to discuss is Giovanni di Paolo’s
‘Young John the Baptist’. It’s one of my favorite pictures of the scene. You can see the young boy of a bit of an indeterminate
age. He looks like a pre-teen here, leaving the crenellated, fortified walls of an Italian
Renaissance City. You can see he’s just stepping out of that city gate into the wilderness.
The young boy is actually represented twice. You see he’s both in the lower left and then
up again, we see him as he ventures into sort of quite scary-looking hills. Crazy shapes in the mountains. And it’s interesting
that in the European imagination, desert simply meant empty space but empty space in Europe
isn’t sandy desert as we might think of it. It’s just where people don’t live. For that
reason, I find it especially interesting with as you say, he’s not just making one transition.
He looks to me like little Dick Whittington with his knapsack over his shoulder but the
doing the opposite of Dick Whittington because he’s not going off to the big city. He’s quitting
the big city, heading off into the countryside. But he isn’t even going to be satisfied with
the cultivated countryside. He really wants to go to where no one lives and that’s up
in the mountains in his second appearance, in his second transition. Two sorts of boundaries
are crossed in his journey. It dramatizes that distance, doesn’t it? I
love how Giovanni di Paolo’s represented this. He’s created this sort of aerial perspective
of the cultivated land. You can see the patches of green. Much as that’s what you see when
you fly over them today, that’s how you read the earth from above. What a feat of imagination. It’s just so clever. He’s left that cultivated
land and as you say, he’s making, winding his way up into these very ominous looking
rocks. It’s interesting you say he could be pre-teen
because some of the very early church fathers commenting on material that isn’t in the Bible,
imagining what John might have been doing as it were between the first part of his story
when he was born and named and then his appearance on the banks of the river Jordan. They imagined
that almost as soon as he could walk, he headed off into the wilderness. That was important
in their minds because he had to be kept pure. That the task, the great task he would have
of baptising Christ required him to be pure. The best place to stay pure is in the wilderness
so off he goes, pretty much as soon as possible which means that he can’t be reliant on any
of the ordinary things, the comforts of life that go with the city life or even cultivated
rural life. He’s got to be radically reliant on God and on the things of wild nature. The youth that he’s represented as enhances
this idea of his vulnerability and the need to rely both on God and on his own self-sufficiency.
Actually, we have another painting in the National Gallery by an unknown Italian artist
that is the next step. This is an artist imagining how John might have been self-sufficient in
the wilderness. I think we should have a look at that next. Wonderful. Ben, I’ve brought you up here to Conservation
so we could have a closer look at a painting that’s not currently on display. Now, we’re skipping ahead 200 years in the
history of art. We moved from mid-15th century to mid-17th century. We have here a representation
by an Italian artist, we don’t know who, of John the Baptist in the wilderness. You see
he’s a little bit older than he was portrayed in the Giovanni di Paolo. A teenager. I was suggesting that this painting might
allude to how the Baptist was self-sufficient in the wilderness. I wanted to draw your attention
to this ingenious little invention that he seems to have made. There’s a natural spring coming out from the
rock which he’s channeled using a reed, the same sort of material as his famous reed cross. Yes, his attribute Propped in the cleft of another reed. Extraordinarily,
therefore sort of echoing the cruciform shape, a crossbar and an upright. Yet this cross
channels to him the water of life, the water that he depends on. That’s theologically,
very rich, isn’t it? Very eloquent. The idea that the wilderness isn’t
just a place of absence, it could actually provide. It reminds me too of Moses feeding the Israelites
in the wilderness. As lead them through, he struck … there’s a story of Moses striking
a rock and water flowed out of it. So again, the provision the provision by God in the
wilderness of water. There’s something that the Baptist, like Moses, again, a sort of
tradition of Old Testament prophet-hood, that he channels. And obviously, water being so key to the figure
of the Baptist, anticipating the future baptisms that he will perform. And sort of the next
moment, you wonder then, “What happens to the Baptist in the wilderness?” Actually,
I’ve asked Conservation to display another picture that we own just beside here for us
to have a look at. This is Moretto da Brescia’s painting from
the early 1520’s it’s an extremely unusual iconography. You have a kneeling John the
Baptist, a little older than we’ve seen him. He’s come from boy to a teenager. Now, he’s
a young man. Yes, grown man. He’s kneeling quite humbly
at the banks of the river Jordan, we can imagine, perhaps. You actually have Christ in a gesture
of blessing before him. There’s a very famous line in the Gospels
about the relation between the two, Christ and John the Baptist in which the Baptist
says of Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease. There’s one who comes after me who
is greater than I am and he must increase and I must decrease.” The way they’re related
to each other, physically, expresses just that change in relationship. He’s falling
down onto his knees. In humility. Christ on slightly higher ground, raising
his hand above him. And there’s something very interesting about
this steep, rocky path. You almost imagine that after being blessed by Christ, the young
Baptist might stand up and make his way back into the city. To me it looks almost like a moment of ordination
or at least commissioning, as if Christ is saying, “Now, you’re ready to go and begin
your public ministry.” He’s about to go public and begin the preaching for which he’s famous,
on the banks of the Jordan and all the city of Jerusalem is going to discover him and
come out to find out what he’s got to say. And we’ll focus on the preaching in our next
episode.

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