John the Baptist in Scripture and Art

After my recent post on J Bap, I thought I’d do a more expansive post on his life. Of course, we will rely on Scripture to tell the story. As a bonus, we’ll introduce some famous artwork to express visually what I can’t express with words alone.

John the Baptist is a favorite subject of artists, most likely because the accounts of his life, in the Gospels, are quite dramatic and lend themselves well to artist expression.

The Visitation

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Visitation. 1640.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Lk 1:39-42)

Zechariah names John

Van der Weyden, 1440. Nativity of St John.

And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechari’ah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. (Lk 1:59-64)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John the Baptist Preaches

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 


Baptism of Jesus

Francesco Albani, 1638. Baptism of Jesus.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:13-17)

John Reproaches Herod

Mattia Preti, 1660. John Accuses Herod.

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Hero’di-as, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison. (Luke 3:16-20)

Salome asks for John’s Head

Bernardino Luini, 1510. "Salome asks for St. Johns' Head," (Louvre)

For when Hero’di-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.

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