John the Baptist Testifying the Nativity to the People, from a Franciscan Misssal by Unknown artist [Paris]

Unknown artist [Paris]

John the Baptist Testifying the Nativity to the People, from a Franciscan Misssal, Mid-14th century, Illuminated manuscript, Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS Douce 313, fol. 17r, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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The First Witness of the Trinity

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This depiction of John the Baptist preaching to the people and pointing to the infant Christ in the manger is from a mid-fourteenth century Franciscan missal produced in Paris. It is illuminated in grisaille (shades of grey) with coloured tints, reflecting contemporary taste for monochromatic work, which could be executed relatively economically.

In the margin is the symbol of John the Evangelist, the eagle, referring us to that Gospel. The baby is attended by the beasts traditional in Nativity scenes—and of course it was St Francis who first gave us the manger scene with its ox and ass.

An illumination that appears prior to this one in the manuscript (folio 10) also depicts John preaching—he is shown standing at the Jordan, as we might expect from the Gospel accounts. (In medieval accounts, he is classed as preacher as well as prophet and martyr.) The familiarity of that scene contrasts sharply with the apparent oddity of this one. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was six months older than Christ. Here, he appears alongside the Christ child as adult.

This is a conscious anachronism. It can be read as a fleshing out of John 1:33–34, ‘And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’.

The Son of God was manifest in flesh as the infant Christ. The Baptist sees and knows and (uniquely in John’s Gospel) witnesses to this ‘lamb’, who is to ‘take away the sin of the world’. And because it is a destiny Christ bore from his birth, John is here shown pointing to him as a baby. (Earlier in the story, at the Visitation, commentaries and images describe the unborn John greeting the foetal Christ.)

This in turn reflects one of the privileges of the Baptist according to Christian tradition, namely, that he was the first to whom the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed (McDonagh 2001: 82). John saw the Spirit as dove and heard the Father’s voice (God the Father is shown speaking to John from heaven both here and on fol. 10). But in this illumination the point is even more explicit. The word ‘Deus’ on the band refers not just to the Father but to the infant below. We are pointed by the Baptist to the triune God present in both the infant Christ and the Father in Heaven.

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