(Mis)Identifying the Prophet
Commentary by Jennifer Sliwka
Domenico Ghirlandaio provides a number of visual cues that encourage the viewers of this fresco to read it from left to right. These include the direction of Christ’s movement from upper left to lower right and the Baptist’s right-facing orientation. Indeed, many sequential narrative scenes dating from the late medieval through the Renaissance periods encourage a chronological reading from left to right, and Ghirlandaio uses this structure in some of his other frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel where this work is located.
Accordingly, even though John the Baptist (who is Christ’s forerunner), is front and centre in this composition, the figure of Christ, represented at the top left, occupies a site often representing the ‘beginning’ in a sequential narrative. Beholders of this fresco might therefore first identify the figure of Christ whose posture visually guides them down the path to the Baptist in a way that mimics the structure and meaning of John’s words: ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me for he was before me’ (John 1:31).
Indeed, in many ways, the Baptist’s convoluted passage and complicated articulation of time is rendered more clearly in paint than it is in words. This text implies Christ’s divine pre-existence as, even though he was born six months after the Baptist, John declares that Christ was ‘before’ him. This notion of Jesus’s pre-existence in some ways anticipates his subsequent words ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58).
Cadogan, Jeanne K. 2000. Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Prinz, Wolfram and Max Seidel (eds). 1996. Domenico Ghirlandaio 1449–1494, Atti di Convegno Internazionale Firenze, 16–18 ottobre 1994 (Florence: Centro Di)
Reddaway, Chloë. 2015. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols)
Picturing Attention and Inattention
Commentary by Jennifer Sliwka
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)
Postures of Humility
Commentary by Jennifer Sliwka
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
Domenico Ghirlandaio :
Preaching of John the Baptist, c.1486–90 , Fresco
Pieter Bruegel I :
The Sermon of St John the Baptist, 1566 , Oil on panel
Moretto da Brescia :
Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist, c.1520–23 , Oil on canvas
Modes of Address
Commentary by Jennifer Sliwka
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s monumental chapel fresco and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s comparatively small panel both underscore the Baptist’s role as herald and preacher: the vox clamantis or ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’ (John 1:23).
By representing John speaking and making a pointing gesture, both works suggest that he is responding to the questions of the priests, Levites, and Pharisees who asked whether he was Elijah (vv.19–25) and perhaps proclaiming the ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ (Behold the Lamb of God; John 1:29) to his (mostly) attentive audiences. Conversely, we may imagine the Baptist in Moretto da Brescia’s painting as having just uttered the same words to himself, before falling to his kneels before Christ beside the river Jordan. John’s proximity to the river seems to give greater attention to his role as baptiser as described in verses 25–26 than to his role as preacher.
Moretto’s painting, which represents a moment not specifically referred to in Scripture, might represent Christ blessing John either prior to, or immediately following, his baptism by the prophet. This allusion to the baptism of Christ by John anticipates, in turn, an imminent shift in power from the forerunner to Christ. Christ’s baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry and, as the Baptist later indicates: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). Moretto visualizes this shift in dynamic in his painting by representing John in a lowered, kneeling posture and with his head inclined, both postures which suggest his lower ‘rank’ and humility before Christ. This pose also makes John physically smaller (or lesser) than Christ whose upright figure and vividly coloured robes give him a greater prominence.
Where Ghirlandaio and Bruegel’s paintings focus on the imminent arrival of Christ and on John’s prophecy, Moretto’s painting is imbued with a greater sense of pathos, drawing attention to the relationship between the two figures and to Christ’s imminent departure. Thus while all three images speak to the same passage from John’s Gospel, they draw out distinct aspects of the Baptist’s role as forerunner of Christ, namely his heralding, preaching, and baptizing.
The different visual meditations engendered by these works and their modes of address may be attributable to their different intended audiences. Indeed, Ghirlandaio’s monumental fresco, part of a cycle located high up in the chapel of a wealthy family in a Florentine Dominican church, probably reflects the desires of that Order of Preachers, who themselves proclaimed Christ’s significance to their audiences, as much as of the patrons themselves. By contrast, Bruegel and Moretto’s smaller works on panel and canvas respectively, were probably made for a domestic setting. Bruegel’s work seems to respond to a renewed practice in Flanders of preaching out of doors and may have been intended to bring to mind the owner’s own participation in similar events. Moretto’s canvas, with its unusual and more intimate subject and mode of address, was surely intended for the private devotions of an individual, probably one named after the saint, in Brescia whose portrait would have originally been included in the now fragmented composition.
In drawing out different aspects of the Baptist’s life and character, these works demonstrate how artists tailored their visual language to address the different spiritual needs of groups or individuals, so that, in some sense, each viewer encounters his or her own version of John the Baptist, that is, the one that speaks most directly to their personal interests, experiences, and concerns.