Episode 6 | Preaching | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

Episode 6  |  Preaching   |  Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

Ben, I thought we’d start this episode, which
focuses on the preaching of John with our beautiful little Raphael predella panel, which
he painted in about 1505. And I’m always struck here by the fact that
even though John is raised up on this natural mound, almost like a pulpit, the attention
seems to be more on the gathering of the figures coming to listen to him. Yes. Maybe we even see ourselves, or are encouraged
to see ourselves in them, and its helping us to think what it is to be a congregation
to listen to preaching. When I look at this I always think of the famous early English
composer, Orlando Gibbons’s setting of that early part of John’s story, where he’s preaching,
and all of Jerusalem and Judea come to hear him. It’s called This is the Record of John,
and one of the things that he sets is the line that John preaches to the people, ‘Prepare
the way of the Lord’. He’s summoning them to prepare themselves, and some seem more
ready to be prepared than others. That’s actually a very serious message, and
quite a stern one, and you can almost imagine that reflected in that very composed but stern-looking
saint. But there’s something there, and my eye is lead around the painting to think about
the different kinds of attention that people are giving to this very important message.
This figure, leaning on his chin, seems to be very focused and intent, whereas this more
portly figure is slightly distracted, and looking away. Absolutely. He carries the world in his belly,
and has other things to think about, like his dinner. Exactly, but also the sweet inclusion of these
little children, who seem to be pulling at their father’s leg. Very sweet, and I’m fascinated by them, because,
again, part of the content of the Baptist preaching is this line that the Lord can raise
up children of Abraham, even from the stones, which is, perhaps, I wonder being illustrated
here by the fact that they’re sitting on a rock, and they’re in a state of innocence,
aren’t they, they’re naked. And I have seen other images of the Baptist preaching where
you often see a small infant, so perhaps there’s a reference by Raphael, by the patron, a direct
reference to this little detail in the Gospel. Well, this painting seems to focus a little
bit more on the congregation, and their response, let’s say, to John’s message. We have another
painting here in the National Gallery of the same subject, by an artist called Mola, and
there, it’s quite interesting, the focus seems to be on the message instead, and so there’s
a slight nuance change, so perhaps we ought to look at that picture next. This painting’s by an artist called Pier Francesco
Mola, and it dates to about 1640, and as you’ll see, it’s the same subject as the Raphael
little predella panel that we just looked at. But I wanted to show it to you, because
the focus seems to be quite different in this canvas. If you remember what we talked about
in the Raphael, we talked about the congregation being the focus of the attention. Yes, and they’ve shrunk here to just a few
representative figures … Exactly. … and John is center stage. He is. He’s highlighted, quite literally highlighted,
and if you look very closely you can see that his mouth is open, he’s very actively preaching
in this moment. It’s always struck me as one of the challenges
of showing, in a visual image, the act of preaching, which is an auditory experience,
and what, as it were, visual tricks can you use to suggest a moment of speech? The open
mouth is obviously one, and the gesticulating finger captures in a physical movement something
of what preaching is all about. Preaching is directing … directing one’s
mind, isn’t it? And directing, specifically. Christian preaching
is directing towards the figure of Christ and again, a familiar passage from the Gospels
comes to mind here, John says there is one who comes after me, who is greater than I
am, and who was before me, which is a peculiar way of putting it. It’s quite convoluted, in the Gospel passage,
but actually, you can imagine someone like Mola picking that up, and saying. “How am
I going to make that convoluted passage into something very legible?” and in fact, it is
here, and you’ll see that the reed cross and that pointing gesture of the Baptist, so clearly
direct our gaze back to the figure of Jesus It is like a massive arrow. It is. Actually, that gesture itself becomes
an attribute of the Baptist, if you start looking at images of the Baptist, it’s always
that pointing gesture that’s part of the message. That’s very true. Along with the other things
we’ve already spotted, his camel skin, his reed cross, his banderole, the hand itself,
and the pointing hand. It stands in for the whole message. And actually the National Gallery has a beautiful
altarpiece by Parmigianino which might have the most dramatic example of that pointing
finger. I think we should look at that painting next. It’s nearby, isn’t it? Ben, this is the Parmigianino altarpiece that
I was telling you about, with its extraordinary figure of John the Baptist in the foreground. And that preternaturally long finger. It might be better to look at the altarpiece
from here, because it really suits a bit of distance, given its scale. And the finger reminds me, again, that preaching
is a sort of pointing, but a non-literal pointing. That makes sense for this painting, for this
altarpiece, because it’s actually a non-narrative altarpiece, as well, a non-literal. Not a literal scene. Yes, because you would never get this combination
of characters altogether. John appears almost preaching, but also in the wilderness, together
with another penitential saint who we often see in the wildernesses, a sleeping Saint
Jerome, in this case, and of course the Virgin and Child, the child to whom he points so
emphatically. And it’s not just that emphatic pointing gesture
that strikes you. The face of John the Baptist in this is so engaging, almost that piercing
gaze, and that gaze combined with this very complicated, twisting pose … isn’t that
extraordinary? His legs face us, but his body then turns
all the way round and backwards, and it reminds me that one of the images used by early Christian
commentators of the Baptist was that he is a fibula, which is the Latin word for a brooch,
and I think it is because a brooch is hinged in a certain way, and as we’ve noted before
the Baptist is like a hinge between the old and the new order of things, the last prophet,
the first saint, and here his body expresses that sense of being a hinge. It pivots and
directs us further up, and further into the painting. And the gaze initially arrests us,
but says, “Don’t stop with me. Start with me, but don’t stop with me, go further”, and
it’s like he becomes a conduit for our own gaze. That is the message of the preaching. He is
preaching, and directing our view up towards this extraordinary Christ Child, who actually,
particularly from this distance, you see he’s stepping out towards us, that hovering foot.
So as the Baptist moves back, the Christ Child moves forward. He’s making way, as it were. I’m struck by the leopard skin that he has,
instead of his familiar camel. Yes, it’s sort of draped over his thigh. It reminds me of the Roman god Bacchus, who’s
often depicted with a leopard skin, and there is something a bit Bacchic, isn’t there, about
John? Yes, actually in a few iconographic traditions,
he seems to appropriate, or acquire Bacchus’s attributes, and sometimes even wears a crown
of vines in his hair, and there’s something about associating those two kinds of wildernesses,
the wildness of Bacchus. Yeah, outside the walls of the city and both
disrupt convention and destabilise things a bit. Precisely, so he’s absorbed and taken on some
of those characteristics of the Roman god. Isn’t that extraordinary the way there’s also,
if you make out just in the left hand side, in all of these amazing skins that he’s wearing,
can you see there’s a cup attached to his belt? Yes, on his hip. Yes. And that tells us what all of this preparing
the way is ultimately for, he is preparing the way of the Lord but for a very specific
purpose, which is the Baptism. The baptism, exactly. And actually that will
be the subject of our next episode.

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