Christ blesses his kinsman John who kneels before him wearing camel skins and bearing a reed cross, in a rocky landscape with a city just discernible in the far distance.
This highly unusual episode is not specifically mentioned in the Gospels and is not otherwise known in the history of art, making it exceptionally rare and, perhaps, especially in need of theological interpretation. Read against John 1:19–34, we may imagine that Jesus has descended the rocky path represented at the top of the composition towards John who has just uttered the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ before falling to his knees in recognition of Jesus as Christ.
By representing John below Jesus and facing him in this posture of humility, Moretto da Brescia ensures Christ ‘ranks’ both above and ‘before’ him in visual terms. The representation of the river Jordan across the bottom of this composition recalls John’s words: ‘I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel’ (v.31) and might allude to Jesus’s baptism by John. Interestingly, even as he makes a gesture of blessing, Christ appears to turn back towards the steep uphill path, perhaps a visual synecdoche for the difficult but virtuous journey he is about to take up, an allusion to the beginning of his public ministry.
In many ways, we, the beholders of this painting, become sole witnesses to this pivotal and otherwise private moment. The potential relationship between viewer and subject in this painting is clarified further when we note that the canvas has been cut down and the composition probably originally included a portrait of a kneeling patron in the right foreground. Today, as viewers of this fragmented canvas, we might take up the pose of the presumed absent patron and, in emulation of the kneeling Baptist, humble ourselves before the figure of Jesus Christ.
Penny, Nicholas. 2004. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, vol. 1 (London: The National Gallery Company), pp. 150–153
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.”