Christ speaks to the multitudes about John the Baptist, from a 'Commentary on the Gospels' by William of Nottingham Unknown English artist

Unknown English artist

Christ speaks to the multitudes about John the Baptist, from a 'Commentary on the Gospels' by William of Nottingham, 14th century, Illuminated manuscript, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 165, fol. 202r, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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A Priestly Baptist

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This illumination is from a mid-fourteenth-century manuscript (William of Nottingham’s commentary on Clement of Lanthony’s gospel harmony, Unum Ex Quattuor). After being owned by James Palmer (who wrote part of it), it was acquired by Thomas Arundel (1353–1414), Archbishop of Canterbury.

This particular image relates not to the Gospel of John but to the passage in Matthew 11:7 in which Christ addresses the multitude about John. I include it here to show that at whatever stage the Baptist is depicted by artists, we are likely to find him with his lamb.

It is because the Lamb of God is the Baptist’s description of Christ in John 1:36 that it becomes one of his own defining symbols. Along with his camel hair and bare feet the lamb is one of his most recognizable visual attributes. Here it is enclosed in a medallion—to which he points with his finger as we are told he pointed to Christ with the words, Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Behold, the Lamb of God’).

In medallion form, the Agnus Dei is also suggestive of the Eucharist—the Ecce Agnus Dei from John 1:36 is recited at Mass at the point the priest raises the consecrated host. This association between the words of John the Baptist and the sacrament itself is, I think, one reason why the Baptist is often associated with the Eucharist. It is borne out in a hostile account of a Corpus Christi procession by Thomas Naogeorgus, translated by Barnaby George: ‘St John before the bread doth go, and pointing towards him / Doth show the same to be the Lambe that takes away our sinne’ (Hutton 1994: 129).

John here is not dressed in his traditional camel’s hair—interestingly, given that in the passage being illustrated Christ explicitly says that John did not dress in soft clothes (Matthew 11:8)—but his identity is nevertheless apparent from his bare legs and feet, which refer to his wilderness existence.

Note that John here, at centre, is smaller than Christ, whom we see on the left. This may refer to John’s pronouncement (John 3:30) that ‘he [Christ] must increase and I must decrease’. Several medieval commentators (for instance, Ryan 1993: 336) observe that this was borne out by their deaths, with Christ raised on the cross, and John diminished by a head.

 

References

Hutton, Ronald. 1994. The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

McDonagh, Melanie. 2001. ‘Devotion to St John the Baptist in England in the Middle Ages’, PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, pp. 183–86

Ryan, W. G. (trans.). 1993. Jacobus de Voragine: The Golden Legend, vol. 1, (Princeton: Princeton University Press)


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