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Preaching of John the Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio
The Sermon of St John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel I
Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist by Moretto da Brescia

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Preaching of John the Baptist, c.1486–90, Fresco, 4.5 m wide, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Pieter Bruegel I

The Sermon of St John the Baptist, 1566, Oil on panel, 95 x 160.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts [Szépművészeti Múzeum], Budapest, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Moretto da Brescia

Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist, c.1520–23, Oil on canvas, 66.9 x 94.7 cm, The National Gallery, London; Layard Bequest, 1916, NG3096, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Modes of Address

Comparative Commentary by

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.