Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist by Moretto da Brescia

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

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Postures of Humility

Individual Commentary
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.

 

References

Penny, Nicholas. 2004. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, vol. 1 (London: The National Gallery Company), pp. 150–153