Six Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist

This week I turned right, past the second floor’s brightly lit impressionism welcome room, into the middle-ages and renaissance European area.  This is a period of art I know very little about, save for the crash course I got 15 years ago travelling through Italy with two art history enthusiasts.  Back then, I was not so interested, and contented myself with quips like “oh wait, let me guess, ‘madonna e bambino‘!”  I realize now I was basically acting like one of those proudly philistine anti-classical music people who say “it all sounds the same.”  As if somehow the fact that each of these were portraits of common religious themes mean they could have anything to show secular, sophisticated (actually just sophomoric) me.  Part of the problem was we were in a beautiful new country and yet spending all day in museums (if I could go back to Siena, I would spend more time in the main square or sitting at an outdoor restaurant), but it was also that I had too much of an ax to grind to possibly imagine getting anything out of “religious art.”

Too much of an ax to grind, though, is something I hold in common with John the Baptist.  When my wife was a pastor, I always thought as much as I might like the job – at least the part where you get to stand in front of people and tell them to believe things – for that very reason I knew I could never do it.  I had too much John the Baptist in me, and too little Jesus [there are many other reasons I could never be a pastor, just to be clear].  John the Baptist is a character I always identified with in the gospels – much less I’m-okay-you’re-okay, much more fire-and-brimstone.  Much less unity, much more separation.

The Art Institute has a set of six paintings, by one Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, 1399-1484).  They’re from an original series of twelve.  Each shows a scene from the life of John the Baptist, as described in the gospels.  In all of them, separation and division are prominent.

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Here, we see two versions of John: one walking out of a building, the other him wandering in the wilderness.  The two halves of the painting (top and bottom) are strangely separated from one another, lending a sense of unreality to the whole.  The geometric shapes on the ground, and the jagged, oddly configured mountains are also notable.

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The second panel shows the ubiquitous John-pointing-at-Jesus motif.  What’s striking is again the odd mountains in the background, which look almost like wings or computer-game widgets, but also the separation achieved between Jesus and the others in the picture, by means of the river.  Jesus could just as well be on his own continent, and the river somehow looks more elemental and allegorical than natural at all.  The separation in this painting is thus theological or even ontological.

 

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As the series continues, John is now separated in a civil sense –  imprisoned (for heresy?) and his followers speak with him through the bars.  The mountains and landscape are still visible in the background, but now the foreground shows an imperial-type castle.  The dog chained up makes an obvious visual parallel with John.

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In the fourth frame, we see Herod’s court, and Salome (his daughter?) asking for John’s execution.  I think that’s the story; it also has something to do with the “dance of the seven veils.”  We see the lushness of the court meal spread before them, and a seeming unity, but as so often in empire, that unity is unstable and relies on exclusion.  This is the only frame in the sequence where we can’t see John the Baptist at all.

 

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Frame five cruelly mocks frame three: the prison bars are now open, and instead of John’s followers listening to his lessons, we have two soldiers, of of whom replaces the sword into its scabbard after having just beheaded him; the blood still gushes.  Now – where the separation in frame one was figurative – John from himself, he has no been literally separated in two.

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Frame six shows the victory of empire – John’s head on a platter for Herod, and seemingly everything is put back in order.  Of course we know this is only a foretaste of the disruption brought about by Jesus’s coming, but also of course, the execution of John the Baptist anticipates that of Jesus.

Overall, I come away with an unsettling feeling looking through this sequence, especially in the pairing of frames 3 and 5, and 4 and 6.  There is also a graphic-novel sense to the scenes; they’ not so much the adoration common in so many other depictions of religious iconography. In the end, John the Baptist looks more like a distraction cruelly dispatched than a prophet of the coming of Christ.

 

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