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.
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)
32And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; 36and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.