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.
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.”