Unlike most representations of this scene, here the Baptist is nearly hidden amongst those gathered to hear him preach in this clearing in the woods. Identifiable by his dark brown hair shirt, the Baptist, just to the left of centre, raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing normally associated with Christ, underscoring his role as forerunner. He seems about to announce Jesus’s arrival as he directs our attention with his extended left hand to a figure in a light blue, almost radiant, robe.
With his arms crossed solemnly over his chest, Jesus walks up the hill towards the assembled multitude who have yet to register his presence. Peasants mingle with nobles, soldiers, clerics, children, and pilgrims wearing contemporary Flemish or foreign dress in this anachronistic gathering.
The members of the crowd demonstrate varied responses to the Baptist’s message of repentance, some listening intently, some conversing while others, such as the palm reader and his client in the foreground, are entirely preoccupied with other things. The low viewpoint of the painting creates the sense that we are also present among the throng and the painting seems to ask what our response to the Baptist and his message might be. As privileged beholders of the whole scene, we also anticipate the next narrative moment and the crucial shift in attention from John to Jesus who ranks ‘before’ (or greater than) the Baptist.
A third major protagonist of this picture is the distinctive Northern-European landscape that recalls Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s native Flanders. However, the river must also allude to the Jordan and to John’s baptism of Jesus, signalling the beginning of his ministry. The architecture of the distant church (together with the presence of clerics and pilgrims) clearly refers to a time further into the future than Jesus’s day, bringing the narrative forward into the artist’s own day. Indeed, the subject of this painting may reflect a renewed contemporary interest in open-air sermons of the Gospels following the Council of Trent.
Prosperetti, Leopoldine. 2009. Landscape and Philosophy in the Art of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) (Aldershot: Ashgate)
Sellink, Manfred. 2011. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings, and Prints (Ghent: Ludion)
Stechow, Wolfgang. 1968. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (New York: H.N. Abrams)
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Eliʹjah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Eliʹjah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”