Margaret Iacono: Murillo’s “The Birth of Saint John the Baptist”

Margaret Iacono: Murillo’s “The Birth of Saint John the Baptist”


– Hello, I’m Margaret Iacono, Assistant Currator at
The Frick Collection. Today we’re in the oval
room of The Frick Collection where we’ll be visiting some paintings that are on loan to us from the Norton Simon Museum of Art
in Pasadena in California. We’ll begin here with a beautiful painting by Spanish artist
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Specifically he’s a 17th
century Spanish artist and he painted this wonderful,
beautiful painting of the birth of St. John the
Baptist in about 1660. And just to give you the basic story here, according to the Gospel of Luke, Zachariah, who we see standing here, and his wife Elizabeth
were old and childless. Zachariah while dutifully
lighting incense in the temple, is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who tells him that he and his elderly wife will have a son, will name him John and he’ll be filled with
the holy spirit from birth. Now Zachariah, being elderly,
is somewhat incredulous and asks the angel for a sign,
whereupon he is struck mute. And he loses his ability to speak throughout the entire conception and through the birth of his child. Now on the eighth day, after Elizabeth has
given birth to the son, the townsfolk gather around
and decide to name the child. And they choose to name him
Zachariah after his father despite Elizabeth’s protests
that he be named John. Zachariah signals for a
tablet, a writing tablet, and writes down, “His name
is John,” on the tablet and suddenly regains the ability to speak. And the child of course is called John and fulfills the prophecy and
it is clear to all the people that this child is a very special child. Now what we’re looking at here is not actually the birth
of St. John the Baptist but the first bath. And none of the canonical stories actually describe the bath. Most likely this is meant to be symbolic of John the Baptist’s future vocation. And we see this wonderful copper basin from which the child has just emerged. And he is seated on the lap
of one of his nursemaids and surrounded by three other nursemaids. His father Zachariah looks
on while his mother Elizabeth lies in bed recovering from her labors and is attended by a nurse as well. Now there are two
interesting sources of light in this painting. The child himself, who
emits this wonderful glow and this golden cluster of angels who peer down from the heavens upon the holy scene here. Now it’s interesting that
Murillo decides to use the child as a source of light because the name John means morning star, Lucifer, and Christ calls John The
Lantern several times. in the book of John. So of course this is
probably symbolic as well. Also symbolic I think are these wonderful white glowing towels
that the nurses are using to dry and swaddle the child. The fourth century St. John Chrysostom describes St. John the Baptist as being whiter than
the whitest of garments. He tells us that if you
took a white garment and compared it to snow, suddenly the garment wouldn’t look very white any longer. Likewise, St. John the Baptist
compared to another holy man outshines that other holy man by far. So I think it’s possible that these wonderful glowing towels
have some symbolic qualities. Also important are the
words of St. Augustine who tells us how important the birth of St. John the Baptist was on the church’s calendar. St. John’s birthday is still
celebrated today on June 24th and we are told that
only three individulas in the canonical literature
have their birthday celebrated on the church’s calendar, and that’s Christ, the Virgin
Mary and St. John the Baptist. While the church celebrates the death of many saints and martyrs, they generally do not celebrate the birth. But because John the
Baptist like Christ and Mary were believed to have been conceived free of original sin, his birth is actually
given a higher dignity than his death date. Interesting too is that Murillo creates these wonderful genre,
religious genre scenes. As you see here, we have
these holy characters but they’re set in everyday setting. We see this wonderful little
puppy on a child’s chair who looks on at the action. And even the figures themselves resemble figures that
Murillo may have seen on the streets of Seville. The nursemaid that’s holding him, instead of being a royal, regal figure is actually almost peasant like in the rip of her garment. She’s a working class person. So Murillo takes these
people, these holy figures and puts them into
settings that would’ve been very recognizable to the
people looking at them. Interesting too, Seville at this time was a city in great despair. In 1660, we think this
painting was painted and just slightly earlier in 1649, the Bubonic Plague comes through and devastates half of the population. Two years later, in 1651,
a famine hits Seville and riots break out in response to this. Similarly, the local
river begins to silt up and enormous taxes are waged on the people to support foreign wars. So you can imagine that this is a people in great need of some hope and to some extent I think
Murillo does provide this in his wonderful canvas. Most likely this painting was in one of the local churches or monasteries that was in Seville. And at this time there
were nearly 70 monasteries and about 28 churches so
there are plenty of options of where this may have hung. We don’t know specifically
where the painting was installed but we do know that by the early 1800’s Henry Gallingnight in England, a member of Parliament and an architect, a poet and an author had actually owned the painting. Probably acquiring it
during his travels in Spain earlier in the 1800’s. In 1973 though, we know though that the
painting finds it’s way to Wildenstien and Company and that is who Norton
Simon purchases it from. And this is in addition
to another painting by Murillo that Norton Simon already owns. So obviously the great
collector was quite a fan of this wonderful artist. If you’d like to learn
more about this painting, please consult our
catalog which is available via our website at www.frick.org.

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