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Saint John the Baptist

Who was John the Baptist and why has he been so important to artists and patrons over the centuries? 10 films explore the life of this pivotal figure through masterpieces in the National Gallery and beyond.

More from Saint John the Baptist (10 videos)

  • JENNIFER SLIWKA:     Ben, I can hardly believe it but we’ve been teaching this collaborative MA between the National Gallery and King’s College London now for four years and focusing specifically on Christianity and the arts, but in particular on the figure of John the Baptist. And I’ve really enjoyed exploring the National Gallery’s collection. And I think at my last count I’m at over 120 figures of John the Baptist. So it just shows his popularity across centuries and in different geographic locations.

    BEN QUASH:    And he’s a hugely important figure in Christian tradition, too.   Because he’s the one who arrives to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is the forerunner, as he describes himself, preparing the way of the Lord. In that sense he’s one of the very first saints and one of the very first figures who appears in the New Testament. The Christian bible is divided into the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, which it inherited from Judaism and the New Testament, which begins to tell the story of Christ. And the life of Christ particularly concentrated in the four Gospels within the New Testament. And John the Baptist is one of the very first characters to appear in the gospel narratives, precisely because he’s the forerunner. And yet he also looks back to that tradition of prophets in the Old Testament.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:     In that way he sort of represents both continuity and change, doesn’t he? And I think that’s captured very beautifully in Carlo Crivelli‘s 15th century altarpiece that we’re looking at.

    If you have a look here, John the Baptist is represented on the left.  And what I’m struck by in particular is the way that he stands on one particular ground, which as you see is at the banks of a river.And how that marks a disruption between the other saints of the same altarpiece who stand on these very elaborate marble parapets. So he’s both part of this gathering of saints and set apart.

    BEN QUASH:    He always stands out it seems to me, as quite unlike any other saint, so distinctive. You can see any number of bishop saints and you have to work quite hard to work out which it is, or monk saints or the saints of virgin martyrs. The Baptist you could never mistake for anyone other than himself.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And I think that’s something that artists have picked up on. They wanted representations of those saints to be immediately recognisable, not least perhaps from the back of a church, from the congregation who couldn’t get up close. Actually if we do get up close and have a little look at this altarpiece I can show you a few of the details. 
    The Baptist, because of all the time he spent in the desert, is often represented as quite thin and emaciated with long wavy hair. But possibly the most recognisable attribute is he wears this extraordinary camel skin, which he is said to have clothed himself in. But there’s a few other attributes that we have in the Crivelli that literally point our way forward to different aspects of his life. Mainly that pointing gesture which you’ll see repeated over and over in representations of John.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s the perfect symbol for his whole preparatory ministry. He’s a pointer and he’s pointing to Christ – that’s his job as a saint. Here it’s wonderfully achieved by the fact that he’s pointing to words that refer to Christ on his scroll, the Latin words Ecce Agnus Dei which means ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ The ‘Lamb of God’ was John’s description of Christ, the one who would die to take away the sins of the world. And those are really important words for Christians through the centuries too, because they’re uttered in the context of the Mass or the Eucharist. It’s as if some of the Baptist most important words are immortalised in the regular worship of Christians, at the point where the bread and wine are consecrated and represent the presence of Christ among the congregation.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Of course, John often carries a reed cross in allusion to Christ’s crucifixion. The fact that it’s made from reeds refers back to his time by the River Jordan. That’s where John the Baptist did his baptising.  And this representation of the water in the foreground of this panel represents that very river. Interestingly, Crivelli has included this little riverbank on our side, on the viewer’s side of the painting, so that he’s situating us on the banks of the river Jordan facing John.

    BEN QUASH:    Wonderful. It really brings us into the picture. Not only into the presence of John but into the idea of baptism itself, as if we could step into the water and be baptised by him ourselves.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Almost an invitation. And most often John is represented in the act of baptising Christ and we’re very lucky at the National Gallery because we have one of the most famous representations of that baptism by Piero della Francesca. I’ll show it to you.
    The Piero della Francesca Baptism was painted about just over 20 years before the Crivelli. It was also an altarpiece for a church in Piero’s native city called Borgo Sansepolcro, in Tuscany. It must have been for an altar dedicated to John the Baptist to have this as such a prominent feature at the centre of the altarpiece. And you see even from here look how it pulls you towards it.

    Here in Piero's Baptism altarpiece, we see probably the most represented scene in the life of John the Baptist, when we don't have him represented singly, as we did in the Carlo Crivelli altarpiece. This would be the key moment; this is the culminating moment, if you will, of John's life, isn't it?

    BEN QUASH:    He's been baptising others until this point, but at this point when Christ arrives to receive John's baptism, and that's both the crowning point of John the Baptist's career; it's why we call him "John the Baptist."

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely.

    BEN QUASH:    And also, the beginning of Christ's public ministry.  So it's a crucial turning point for both of them.
    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And It's quite interesting, too, that this is the moment where actually, Christ is the central figure. His ministry begins; he becomes more and more important, and John's, lesser so, but always, as we will see, in every moment, John is always that step ahead. He's preparing the way for Christ.

    BEN QUASH:    That's fascinating, because he is a preparer and precursor at every point. He's just one step ahead, as you say, of Christ in terms of the first to have a miraculous birth, the first to preach, the first to baptise.
    Uniquely apart from Christ, we have his whole life told within the New Testament from beginning to end. Not even the Virgin Mary has that privilege.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s perhaps why he’s been such an important focus for artists and patrons who represent every scene, every episode from his life. And what we’ll do in the next nine episodes is actually examine National Gallery pictures, which represent key moments from his life from the beginning to end and maybe explore why he was so important for so many different people over the centuries.

    Episode 1: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Introduction

    Who was John the Baptist and why has he been so important to artists and patrons over the centuries? In this first of 10 films, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash introduce us to this pivotal figure in the Biblical story, and reveal the ways he can immediately be recognised in works of art.

    This episode takes a close look at two National Gallery masterpieces, Carlo Crivelli’s 'The Demidoff Altarpiece', 1476 and Piero della Francesca’s 'The Baptism of Christ', 1450s.

    ‘John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading’ is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London.

    Who was John the Baptist and why has he been so important to artists and patrons over the centuries? In this first of 10 films, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash introduce us to this pivotal figure in the Biblical story, and reveal the ways he can immediately be recognised in works of art.

    This episode takes a close look at two National Gallery masterpieces, Carlo Crivelli’s 'The Demidoff Altarpiece', 1476 and Piero della Francesca’s 'The Baptism of Christ', 1450s.

    ‘John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading’ is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London.

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    Episode 1: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Introduction

    Movie
  • BEN QUASH:    Jenny, we're beginning our journey of the Baptist's life with the time before he was even born. And for that reason, I wanted to bring you here to King's College London, which is where I work and teach, and specifically here to the chapel. As you can hear, the choir are rehearsing. And they're rehearsing a piece that's enormously important in the church's regular cycle of prayer and worship. It's called the ‘Magnificat.’ It's the song that the Virgin Mary, who is pregnant with Christ, utters when she meets her kinswoman Elizabeth who is also pregnant with John the Baptist, so he's present in the story, but not yet born. And this song is in part a response to the miraculous events that have surrounded both these two pregnancies, because Mary is a virgin and didn't expect a child and she's got a very special one, and Elizabeth thought she would never have a child, that she was barren, and yet she too is pregnant. And so as they meet, Mary is inspired to utter this extraordinary hymn of praise to God. We don't know whether she actually sang it or not, but it's in the Gospel of Luke in the form of a canticle and it's exultant. As you can hear, the music often tries to accentuate just how joyous this piece of music is.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And they're singing in English.

    BEN QUASH:    They are.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    But you described it as the ‘Magnificat’, so there's a Latin version and this is the English version?
    BEN QUASH:    That's true. Of course, for much of the church's history, and still very often, Latin settings of it were the norm.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    But ‘Magnificat’, what does that refer to then?

    BEN QUASH:    Well the word is odd, it sounds a bit like magnificent, doesn't it? But actually it's a verb and it means to praise or proclaim greatness; to magnify in English, to magnify God. It's proclaiming the greatness of God. As the canticle goes on, we hear of various revolutions in the world. Not just the miracle of these two pregnancies, but the fact that the rich are going to be put down and the poor are going to be raised up and the humble and meek are going to be given a new sort of liberation. That sense that the whole world is being turned on its head almost something that's perfect for John the Baptist because he's going to be a revolutionary figure.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely. And actually now, hearing you describe the ‘Magnificat’ and then hearing it, what immediately comes to my mind are representations of the Visitation. So that is the moment when the Virgin comes to the house of Elizabeth. Actually, the National Gallery has a few images like this. There's one in particular I'd love to show you after we finish listening to the choir. It shows Elizabeth falling to her knees as the Virgin comes and welcomes her. 

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben, I've had the Gallery bring this painting down. It's not currently on display, but I've asked them to put it on an easel, because this is the painting I had in mind when you were explaining to me the meaning in the words of the ‘Magnificat.’ It's by an artist whose name we don't know. We just know him as the Master of 1518 and it's a fragment of an Altarpiece. As you were explaining to me this is the ‘Magnificat’ of the song sung daily, I just imagined people coming to pray in front of this altarpiece and having that in mind. In a way it's a visualisation precisely of that text, isn't it?

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely.  This moment of meeting and the prominence of these two pregnant bellies, too. Elizabeth is placing her hand on Mary's and Elizabeth's own is catching the light.  There's a sense that there's a very special space being created between them. 

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s a beautiful idea of coming together I think the artist has created. You can imagine that the Virgin has travelled afar from the city of Nazareth and taken this path. And then Elizabeth has come down those steps and out of the house to greet her cousin. This is a joyous occasion, isn't it?

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, and our eye almost has to make the journey and be part of the pilgrimage.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I think that would probably be the intention of the artist as well. Really visualizing what this moment was like for the two women.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes.  The space even between them has a sense of huge anticipation, a space that something is going to happen. 

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Charged.

    BEN QUASH:    It's a charged space, yes. It seems to me that the circling of their arms gives a sort of visualisation of a circle of cause and effect between the different significant characters in this scene beginning with the Christ Child in Mary's womb who, as we know from the Gospel account, stimulates John the Baptist in Elizabeth's womb to leap in recognition. It's as if he's already doing what he'll do later in life and pointing to Christ. He, in turn, stimulates Elizabeth to utter her own loud exclamation, "Blessed are you among women." She utters it to Mary.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Her mouth is open there, so you can imagine she's fallen to her knees and she's uttering those words. 
    BEN QUASH:    Yes. And even those words are terribly important in Christian tradition, because they become part of the Hail Mary. Then Elizabeth's utterance, filled with the Holy Spirit as she is according to the Gospel, makes Mary respond with her ‘Magnificat’. So the circle is complete.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So it’s a sort of a double moment of recognition. The two women are meeting, and recognizing that each other are pregnant. Actually, it's the first meeting of the two unborn children, isn't it?

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely. 

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Actually, according to the Gospel accounts, the second meeting is actually at the Baptism. So, there's this interesting combination here of the unborn children and almost you can anticipate the next time they will meet if you know the accounts. And interestingly, the National Gallery owns an Italian picture dating from around the same time as this northern picture that includes both the Visitation and the Baptism. SoI've asked the Gallery to bring it down if you just have a look over here.

    So this is Zaganelli's 1514 altarpiece. And as I mentioned, it has this curious combination of both the Visitation with the Virgin and Elizabeth on the left, and the Baptism. Then some music playing angels, and an angel hovering down at the centre, as well.

    BEN QUASH:    And Mary and Elizabeth instantly recognizable partly in terms of their different ages. Again, the miracle of the Virgin birth and the miracle of the birth of the woman so old she is thought to be barren. Her face is visibly that of an older woman. 

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Unlike the Master of 1518 where they're sort of embracing and celebrating in their pregnancy. Here, it's both the Visitation and sort of the next moment, if you will. Look at the gesture of Elizabeth pointing forward to the Baptism. 

    BEN QUASH:    It's as if that intimate space they created between them suddenly gets opened out to us. Also, there's a pointing forwards by Elizabeth which curiously anticipates a gesture the Baptist will be associated with, that pointing gesture. She's sort of almost a prophet herself, isn't she, in this respect?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    A prophetess

    BEN QUASH:    A prophetess. And what's being disclosed as her arm moves open is the visibility of the future, which is currently invisible in their wombs. It's as if the invisible is becoming visible in this single painting, isn't it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    You can image that being such a challenge for artists, how to represent the invisible visibly. And that's actually a theme that I think we'll revisit throughout these segments, of how artists face that challenge throughout the life of the Baptist. 

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, and I suppose prophets have to do that too. They have to conjure up for people a vision of something that is not yet. And I feel as though these two parents, these two mothers, are performing the prophetic function John will grow into. But there's another prophet who's not present in the picture, but very important to John's story. That's his dad, isn't it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Zacharias, yes.  We will be examining the role of Zacharias in both the birth and naming in the next episode. 

    Episode 2: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Visitation

    Like Christ, John the Baptist was also miraculously conceived. His elderly mother Elizabeth was also a kinswoman of the Virgin Mary. In this episode, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash reveal the significance of the meeting of the two pregnant women and their unborn children - an event known as 'The Visitation' - and its commemoration in church liturgy, music and art.

    In this episode we visit King's College Chapel to hear the choir sing the 'Magnificat' before returning to the National Gallery to see Workshop of the Master of 1518's 'The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth', about 1515 and Francesco Zaganelli's 'The Baptism of Christ', 1514.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    Like Christ, John the Baptist was also miraculously conceived. His elderly mother Elizabeth was also a kinswoman of the Virgin Mary. In this episode, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash reveal the significance of the meeting of the two pregnant women and their unborn children - an event known as 'The Visitation' - and its commemoration in church liturgy, music and art.

    In this episode we visit King's College Chapel to hear the choir sing the 'Magnificat' before returning to the National Gallery to see Workshop of the Master of 1518's 'The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth', about 1515 and Francesco Zaganelli's 'The Baptism of Christ', 1514.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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     thumbnail09:16

    Episode 2: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Visitation

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA:    For this episode on the martyrdom of John the Baptist, I thought we had to come here to Malta to the oratory of the Knights of Malta to look at Caravaggio's extraordinary over life-size representation of the beheading of the Baptist, which he painted in 1608.

    He actually came to Malta, he fled Rome, he had been accused of murder, came to Malta, came under the protection of the Knights and then was actually made a Knight of the Order himself. It's very likely that he painted this just in time for the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist. So it must have been unveiled for August 29th.

    BEN QUASH:    The other great feast day of the Baptist. The birthday is celebrated in mid-summer and then the death day in late August.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And the subject of John the Baptist is obviously one that's particularly appropriate because John is a patron saint of the Knights of Malta and the Knights were traditionally always associated with the sacred holy places where John preached, where he was buried and so forth. And they were also responsible for the preservation of relics and of John's relics in particular, so this is a very important person.

    BEN QUASH:    He's really their saint.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely. So you can see why this would be so appropriate for their Oratory. And it’s extraordinary, the composition that Caravaggio’s made here with John actually front and centre but actually being pushed down by the executioner who's sort of essentially stepping on him and you can see he's begun the execution. Do you see? He's used the sword, he's placed it on the ground and he's now reaching for a dagger on his side and he's about to finish off the job.

    BEN QUASH:    Here on the left presumably we have Salome with her dish ready to receive that head. That's a reminder of the fact that there's been a very dramatic series of events before this very dramatic event. John’s been imprisoned by King Herod for his very public criticism of Herod's marriage to Herodias, who was the wife of Herod’s brother. During the time of John's imprisonment, Herod has a banquet to celebrate his birthday and Herodias’s daughter, who isn't given a name in the New Testament but who we know from other sources is called Salome, dances for the king. And he's so entranced by the dance that he offers her anything she wants; up to half of his kingdom. She checks it out with her mother and the mother says, “Ask for the head of John,” and that's what she does. And at least one of the accounts Herod is rather disturbed by this but he grants the wish. We get delivered to this point in the story. We know that very soon Salome will return to the banquet with the head on its salver to the various reactions, astonished reactions, of the guests I imagine.
    The fact that Caravaggio has shown John in the position that he has, to me it almost echoes the idea of a bound animal; a sacrificial lamb, which is very powerful because Christ Himself is interpreted often as a sacrificial lamb and indeed it is John who describes him as the lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, which is a hugely important text in the Christian liturgy. Often sung, in fact. That sends that this is an anticipation of Christ’s ownsacrifice. John is the only Christian saint who dies before Christ does and here it's almost as if he's participating in Christ's death in advance.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    You can imagine actually when mass is being celebrated and the chalice is placed on the altar. It's almost as if it's catching up John's blood, not Christ's blood but in anticipation of Christ's blood. And something for Caravaggio that he focuses in on that blood in particular. It's front and center together with John, but actually if you look just to the right, you'll see that Caravaggio has actually signed his name in the blood and this is the only signed picture by Caravaggio. Rather extraordinarily he signs it  F. Michaelangelo. F probably for Fra or Frate. He's probably proclaiming his new status as a member of the Knights of the Order. It helps us date this painting as well. Unfortunately, he's then part of this larger altercation with others of his fellow knights and he's actually imprisoned for that.

    BEN QUASH:    So life imitates art at that point.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely. He's imprisoned here on Malta, in St. Angelo and he flees. You can imagine to the dismay of the knights, the military knights in the order of Malta, and he flees to Naples. His biographer Bellori says that in Naples, sort of in expiation for his sins in fact, he paints a painting very related to the scene that actually represents Salome holding the head of the Baptist on the platter and he, Caravaggio, then sent it back to Malta to the Grand Master in hope of reconciliation.

    BEN QUASH:    To make amends.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That may well be the painting that we have in the National Gallery today. But that will be the focus on one of our other episodes.

    BEN QUASH:    I'm very struck as we look at this drama that Caravaggio has painted for us a sort of audience to it in the form of these two other prisoners who are craning their necks at the window of their cell to see what's going on. It heightens the sense that this is a drama with an audience.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Absolutely, they become witnesses to this horrific event much in the way that we the beholders standing in front of this altarpiece are witnesses to this very moment in John's death. And really after Caravaggio paints this altarpiece in 1608, other artists pick up the subject. It becomes extremely popular for centuries afterwards. For example, a French painter in the National Gallery collection, Puvis de Chavannes paints almost the exact same subject and really picks up on the drama initiated let's say by Caravaggio but for very different reasons and to different ends. So whereas Caravaggio is picking up on these liturgical aspects that you mentioned, Puvis de Chavannes’ painting looks far more like the backdrop for a theatrical set. So when we get back to London we should have a look at that.

    Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, about 1869

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:     Ben, this is Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes‘ rather monumental and unfinished canvas he painted around 1869. And it’s quite interesting in this time period, towards the end of the 19th century, this subject, the beheading, the martyrdom of John the Baptist, became exceptionally popular with artists, be they poets, playwrights, composers. And there were figures like Flaubert and Malraux writing about this subject, Oscar Wilde producing stage plays on the theme. Then Strauss picking that up and composing one act operas. More interestingly perhaps for us is that increasing prominence of the figure of Salome. She becomes a major character in all of these versions of the story.

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely, yes. It’s as though a certain sort of 19th century Romanticism spills over into a fascination with the femme fatale, the seductress. Some of the elements of this story that are actually not terribly near the surface frankly in the biblical account are explored imaginatively by these artists and it has almost a fairy tale atmosphere, this painting. But that works in a way because there’s a self-contained quality to this story of the Baptist imprisonment, the feast, the dance and the death. It can be lifted quite neatly out of the biblical narrative and given a presentation in its own right. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, a very dramatic end.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Absolutely. I always imagine that these figures are actually fully self-contained. They all seem so completely absorbed in their own world. So, even though they are functioning as an ensemble cast in a way they’re also focused in their very own concern with this moment.
    BEN QUASH:    Yes. The Baptist himself is absorbed, it seems to me, is absorbed by the cross, which floats almost weightlessly up from his left hand.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    He hardly seems to be holding it.

    BEN QUASH:    He hardly seems to be holding it. And yet in turning to the cross and contemplating it again with this sense of almost quiet submission, at the same time rather movingly he’s exposing his neck to the executioner. So his turn to the cross is at the same time his willing acceptance of the blow. What do you make of the face of Salome? It’s very hard to read.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    To me I read that as sort of ambivalent. She’s neither horrified nor smug and satisfied as we do see her in other representation sometimes. And that sort of thoughtful, questioning gesture that she’s making and the way she’s holding the salver, the platter, strictly close to her body there. She’s not holding it out to accept the head. It’s still very close to her. So it still seems to be sort of moment of indecision

    BEN QUASH:    And in some of the 19th century versions of the story. She’s in love with John the Baptist, so there’s a sense in which she might desire his end but also not.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. In later versions of the story it becomes a tale of unrequited love. And yes, John doesn’t return her affections. So she is the one; not Herodias nor Herod, is the one who orders the Baptist’s death. Interestingly the representation here and the quite peculiar inclusion of her as a redhead, we haven’t seen that before, it seems to be actually that this figure of Salome may well be a portrait of Puvis de Chavannes’ mistress. She was a princess, in fact she was Princess Cantacuzène whom he later married. The idea of including one’s mistress as Salome is quite provocative. Equally, the figure of Herod here making that thumb gesture may well be a portrait also of an author called Anatole France.

    BEN QUASH:    And I suppose it shows how the imaginative identification with the story went all the way to almost sort of dressing up and joining in with the story and acting it in some way. I’m very touched by that fallen fig leaf. This tree is almost denuded of its leaves and there’s almost a sense of both lost innocence, the fig leaf falling away. And even more than that a sense that this is an anticipation of the head that’s about to fall as the executioner’s sword swings.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Absolutely. Interestingly representations of the head of the Baptist on a salver is something that takes on an entire new life of its own and actually that’s something we’re going to explore in the next episode.

    Episode 8: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Martyrdom

    John the Baptist is the only figure in the New Testament to die before Jesus Christ; his beheading is one of the most dramatic scenes represented in the history of art. Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit St. John's Co-Cathedral in Malta to see one of the most famous representations of the Baptist's martyrdom, Caravaggio's altarpiece for the Knights of Malta. They discuss the events leading up to his beheading and the increasing prominence of Salome in depictions of the Baptist's final moments.

    In this episode we see Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', 1608 in St. John's Co-Cathedral and return to the National Gallery to see Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne's theatrical 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', 1869.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    John the Baptist is the only figure in the New Testament to die before Jesus Christ; his beheading is one of the most dramatic scenes represented in the history of art. Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit St. John's Co-Cathedral in Malta to see one of the most famous representations of the Baptist's martyrdom, Caravaggio's altarpiece for the Knights of Malta. They discuss the events leading up to his beheading and the increasing prominence of Salome in depictions of the Baptist's final moments.

    In this episode we see Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', 1608 in St. John's Co-Cathedral and return to the National Gallery to see Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne's theatrical 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', 1869.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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     thumbnail11:43

    Episode 8: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Martyrdom

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So Ben, this episode will concentrate specifically on the Baptist’s head and this tradition of representing not the entire narrative of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. So in the earlier tradition, visual traditions, we often have the representation of the imprisonment, the banquet of Herod, the dance of Salome and then finally the beheading. Here particularly in the Baroque period we see it paired back, stripped back to the essentials of the narrative.

    So here as you can see in our Caravaggio we have just Salome, the executioner and one witness maidservant perhaps with the salver and the presentation, let’s say, of the head.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s hugely concentrated and emotionally very concentrated to the impact of the image when it reaches this stage is huge.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    The figures are life size and in that projection of that strong arm of the executioner the head of John the Baptist is being thrust forward into our space and making us very uncomfortable as beholders standing in front of this picture.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, you can’t sort of feel entirely relaxed in front of this picture and the curious way in which the Baptist’s mouth lolls open again has a very visceral effect as well as reminding us of the fact that the Baptist was once a preacher, the one whose voice cried out in the wilderness and still that sort of echo of the open mouth is very powerful.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And part of that visceral effect I think is the way that Salome is holding that platter is slightly tilted and you can just make out the pooling of the blood as she’s about to accept that head and it’s really feeling like it’s projecting into our space. And then again there’s some sort of ambiguity I think in the responses of the figures. To me the executioner seems quite resigned but he’s just doing a job as well. And interestingly Caravaggio a master of cropping has cropped his composition in such a way that the executioner rests his hand on the hilt of the sword and it’s cropped in such a way that it forms a cross.

    BEN QUASH:    It calls to mind although a much later painting the Puvis de Chavannes we saw in our last episode where the head of the Baptist is turned towards the cross. Here in Caravaggio’s much earlier work we see the same conjunction of Baptist head and something that evokes the cross.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And also to read the face of Salome looking out of the picture but not out at the beholder, not in a confrontational way which we see in some traditions but slightly forlornly out to the side.

    BEN QUASH:    Not callous, not rejoicing.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    No, not smug or self-satisfied either, somewhere in between. And the only real figure who seems to be lamenting this fact is the older woman in the background and you can see her hands are folded in prayer, she’s resting her chin on them in a kind of silent contemplative way, perhaps in a way that we might approach a relic.

    BEN QUASH:    The way you’ve described the reducing down of the narrative which we see here reminds me that there can be an even further reduction just to focus on the head on the platter with everyone else removed from the scene and that this was a very popular artistic and devotional tradition.

    For example in late medieval England large numbers of alabaster sculptures of the head of the Baptist on the plate were made for people’s homes. And it must have been a kind of shorthand for people reminding them of the whole story, reminding them of relics of the Baptist and a way to have something constantly present in their day to day lives that reminded them of him and his importance.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And that idea of that devotional focus in the home as a constant reminder. It’s quite interesting because that continues right into the later modern and even contemporary traditions because there is a fantastic artist called Ana Maria Pacheco and she’s actually sculptured a wooden polychrome sculpture of John the Baptist’s head, which she’s placed on a salver. And it is actually kept by the collector in his house on his coffee table. I’ll have to show you what I mean.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben the owner of the head of John the Baptist carved by the Brazilian sculpture Ana Maria Pacheco has kindly agreed to let us come see it and it occurred to me that we should actually invite the artist herself, so she is actually going to be meeting us at the house …

    BEN QUASH:    Fantastic.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    … and there are plenty of questions we might have for her.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:        Well, Ana thank you so much for agreeing talk about this sculpture today.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Oh no no, don’t mention it

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:        I was just asking Ben if he’d seen it before and this is your first time?

    BEN QUASH:    I’ve seen photographs but there’s a completely different experience when youfeel in the presence of ...

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    I know, but I suppose this is the thing about sculpture particular this kind of sculpture because it is figurative. Since I came to England I started to recall my experience as a child visiting churches and most have Baroque sculptures and what comes with it, what’s behind the culture.  Hence the fact that I used the nails is because also, not that the church would have that for obvious reasons, but there was particularly Brazil, more than any other country in Latin America the influence of African sculpture because we took probably the biggest number of slaves. And so this was so much part of the visual experience.  So I wanted to use the nails there to complete the notion of the hair but it gives the hint of the crucifixion as well. And I use dowling as well to get the beard kind of with …

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I noticed you’ve got very thick nails here sticking out but there’s very small …

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yes, tiny little ones, yes.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Tiny little, you just make out the heads of the nails in the beard as well which also gives it that texture.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yes, exactly.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    We were just talking about the physicality of that, of the sculpture but also in making it’s quite a physical sort of work. Can you tell us about that process?

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Normally this is actually quite small considering the other ones I do.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s still bigger than life size when you see it.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yes but I use chainsaw. My reason to use the chainsaw is because I couldn’t do, like they did in the 18th century, or even before, the kind of very detailed hair because it wouldn’t ring true because we have gone far away from it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And you're not trying to recreate a Renaissance sculpture.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    No, far from it. I came to this, it took some time to come to this solution because by cutting it’s too rigid. So I came to this idea of burning it. I torch, I burn it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    With a blowtorch?

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Blowtorch, yes.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Is that just in the hair? Because you can sort of see it softens the edges, doesn’t it? 

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yes it does and also the cut becomes less rigid so you can play with that. That is the whole thing about the making, you have to discover solutions that convey and are tied up with the narrative.

    BEN QUASH:    I just was struck by that, because the chainsaw is a modern equivalent of the axe which we’ve talked about being almost a symbol of the Baptist because he talks about trees being cut down as a symbol of judgment.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yeah, yeah

    BEN QUASH:    But of course also as an executioner’s implement we have looked at executioners’ swords and that act of cutting.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And are you interested in that continuity or I mean obviously, unfortunately, beheadings still takes place.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yes but you see that is why when people say ‘Ah, this work is not dealing with contemporary issue’ – not quite, it’s still.  But I think it does help if you refer to some events that did happen such long time ago. I think because it’s still there but you are detached enough and it won’t be just an illustration of … because of sedimentation of history in that particular subject I think it’s more interesting for that reason. The thing about why did I chose John the Baptist was this idea of someone who did not accept the status quo and fought to the end to that.

    BEN QUASH:    Because he is a man with bite isn’t he?

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yeah, yeah, that’s a good one!

    BEN QUASH:    That’s why Herod is so disturbed by him and why he has to be got rid of and this revolutionary nature had a terrible end doesn’t it?

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Well also he is always remembered in the best of what he preached for and the idea, the visionary thing of the change of an order. What happens with revolutionaries, and that is why probably I’ve chosen that particular moment because to me that is the statement, if one wants to say, with the work is this idea that revolutionaries should never stay but they always do.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yeah, they give their message and then they should …

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yeah well because they do because they are arrogant and power corrupts. I mean the cliché but it’s true.

    BEN QUASH:    John, lying open-mouthed here spoke, and the mouth is so important he spoke the truth to power.

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    Yeah, yeah.

    BEN QUASH:    He didn’t ever take power and that gives him a very special …

    ANA MARIA PACHECO:    I think that’s why my interest ultimately in that figure is probably for that reason.

    Episode 9: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    The Baptist's Head

    The representation of John the Baptist's life doesn't end with his martyrdom. Independent images of his severed head are a particular focus of devotion and became popular both as paintings and as sculpted objects made for the home - a tradition that continues to the present day.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at the National Gallery's masterpiece by Caravaggio, 'Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist', 1607-10 and pay a visit to a private collector who keeps a polychrome sculpted head of the Baptist by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco in his sitting room.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    The representation of John the Baptist's life doesn't end with his martyrdom. Independent images of his severed head are a particular focus of devotion and became popular both as paintings and as sculpted objects made for the home - a tradition that continues to the present day.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at the National Gallery's masterpiece by Caravaggio, 'Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist', 1607-10 and pay a visit to a private collector who keeps a polychrome sculpted head of the Baptist by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco in his sitting room.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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     thumbnail10:21

    Episode 9: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    The Baptist's Head

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So this episode, we’re going to focus specifically on the birth and naming of John the Baptist. And I wanted us to have a look at this polyptych altarpiece, which isn't currently on display. And I've asked the Gallery to bring it into this room. As you can see, it’s raised up on blocks at the moment so we can have a better look.

    BEN QUASH:    Wonderful to get close to it and have a chance to see it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a very early Florentine altarpiece. It was painted by an artist called Niccolò di Pietro Gerini.

    Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Baptism Altarpiece, 1387

    And it’s quite early, it’s 1387 and it’s an extraordinary example of what we call a polyptych, so a multi-paneled altarpiece. You see in the central scene here, we actually have the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, flanked by two saints. This is a very unusual example. It’s actually the earliest example in the history of art of this narrative scene taking place in this key area of an altarpiece. It’s the sort of area you'd normally expect to find just a single standing or perhaps the Virgin enthroned. What we have here on the bottom is called a predella, which is really a box-like step. It raises the main tier of the altarpiece up, secures it. Normally, we expect to find little narrative scenes of the lives of the saints who are represented above.

    BEN QUASH:    So it’s as if a scene that would normally have appeared in that narrative strip has got bumped up to the status of the central panel.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, upgraded as it were. And what better scene than the Baptism?

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    But because we’re focusing, specifically, today on the Birth and Naming of John the Baptist, I thought we could focus specifically on this scene in the predella.  So in this predella panel, we have the annunciation to Zacharias. This is how he finds out that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s a moment set in the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the very heart of the Jewish cult. He, as a priest, would have the job, along with the other priests, on a sort of rota, of going in to the sanctuary with the task of sanctifying, making holy the altar. He’s using a thurible, which is a sort of metal pot which burns incense in it, and swinging it in order to sanctify the altar. I love the fact that the Baptist’s piece of equipment’s still used in Christian worship. It would’ve been used at the altar above which this altarpiece was placed. So the congregation would have seen the very action happening live that they also see represented in the image by a Christian priest, rather than a Jewish one.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    This wonderful moment, I'm always struck by the Angel Gabriel who’s entering stage left as it were here, swooping in with that gesture of blessing.

    BEN QUASH:    Just as in the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, isn't it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It reminds you of that, this is a portentous moment. That kind of action there, that swooping movement, guides the eye across the predella to read from left to right. But it always strikes me, too, is that it captured a key moment, particularly because that thurible, as you described, is swinging mid-air.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes. It’s like suspended animation. It stops in midair. And again I think that seems to have a wider implication because Zacharias himself doesn’t believe the angel’s message. He thinks it’s impossible and as a punishment for that, he is struck dumb. He loses the power of speech. There's another moment of arrested development just as the thurible is hanging in mid-air so his speech goes.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Both are suspended.

    BEN QUASH:    We have to wait for something to be completed.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Well and actually, beautifully, following from that scene, we immediately have, adjacent to it, the birth of John the Baptist. You can see very tired looking Elizabeth reclining in her bed and being ministered to, as it were, by her maid servants and the young John being bathed in the foreground.

    BEN QUASH:    But what we don’t see is what gets Zacharias back his power of speech. We don’t see the moment in the story that happens beyond the birth.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. Actually, he remains mute until the naming of his son.

    BEN QUASH:    Which is about eight days after the birth.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. That’s not represented here but actually, the National Gallery owns another predella panel by an artist called Giovanni di Paolo. It’s slightly later than this one but perhaps we could get out of this uncomfortable squat and go and have a look at it.

    BEN QUASH:    Stretch our legs.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. That would be nice.

    Giovanni di Paolo, The Birth of Saint John the Baptist: Predella Panel, 1454

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So here, in Giovanni di Paolo’s predella, we actually have a version of the same scene. We have the birth of John the Baptist again but within that scene, we’ve included the naming. And actually, if you look, the scene takes place in something that looks like an Italian Renaissance interior.

    BEN QUASH:    A rather grand one and yet very sweetly domestic at the same time, the baby being bathed. A servant warming a towel by the fire, ready for that baby to be wrapped in. Those domestic details, as well as being beautifully observed and very recognisable even to us today, seems to me, also have a theological aspect to them and to relate very much to the Baptist and his future ministry. The water and fire, for example, those very elemental things, both have strong associations with the Baptist. The water is going to be the tool of his trade, if you like, as a baptiser. The fire relates to his preaching, a lot of which is about judgment and he famously says that the wheat and the chaff are going to be separated and the chaff will be burned. So we see in them almost premonitions of what he's going to go and do and talk about in his later life.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Anticipations of his ministry, if you will but yet, so beautifully, naturalistically included here because they don’t seem an unusual inclusion at all.  The unusual inclusion, actually, is Zacharias because this event of the naming only occurs eight days later, doesn’t it?

    BEN QUASH:    They have been compressed together.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, exactly. The inclusion of Zacharias may well be because the patron of this altarpiece is believed to have been called, Zacharias. He may have stipulated that inclusion. But for us it’s very helpful because it reminds us as we saw in the annunciation in the Gerini that Zacharias, in disbelief, he loses his voice, doesn’t he?

    BEN QUASH:    He disbelieves the angel. That’s his punishment.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Exactly. Instead, when Elizabeth suggests that the child’s name should be called, ‘John’, he has to confirm that in writing because he can't speak and then his voice is miraculously restored. And it’s a surprise because that wasn’t a family name, was it?

    BEN QUASH:    It’s not a family name and so everyone in their circle might well have expected him to be called after his father, for example or at least an established family name. And the rupture that’s represented by him being given an unexpected name, ‘John’, again, I think, tells us something fascinating about the way in which his whole life is a form of disruption of convention. He comes from this very established priestly family at the heart of the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem but he’s going to leave all that behind, go out into the wilderness and then all through his life, representa new way of doing things. It’s as if the old order of things that he comes from transforms, in his person, into a radically new order of things of which he’s the herald. It’s almost as if he's a hinge between two aeons.

    Episode 3: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Birth and Naming

    There are several miracles surrounding the birth and naming of John the Baptist and in these his father Zacharias, plays an important role. In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash reveal how this story was told in art and explain the uses to which small narrative scenes known as predella panels were put to in 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpieces.

    We go behind the scenes at the National Gallery to examine Niccolò di Pietro Gerini's 'Baptism Altarpiece', 1387 and into the Sainsbury Wing to admire Giovanni di Paolo's 'The Birth of Saint John the Baptist: Predella Panel', 1454.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    There are several miracles surrounding the birth and naming of John the Baptist and in these his father Zacharias, plays an important role. In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash reveal how this story was told in art and explain the uses to which small narrative scenes known as predella panels were put to in 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpieces.

    We go behind the scenes at the National Gallery to examine Niccolò di Pietro Gerini's 'Baptism Altarpiece', 1387 and into the Sainsbury Wing to admire Giovanni di Paolo's 'The Birth of Saint John the Baptist: Predella Panel', 1454.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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     thumbnail08:17

    Episode 3: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Birth and Naming

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA: In this episode we’ll focus specifically on the infancy of John the Baptist which is extremely interesting because if you go back to the biblical accounts, his infancy isn't described at all.

    BEN QUASH:    No. We said, didn’t we, in relation to the Visitation and Baptism picture that the Baptism is the second time they met. This is an imagined earlier stage.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    An imagined earlier meeting of the young Christ Child and John the Baptist. As a subject for painting, really only by the 15th century does it become popular. And that’s because there was an author, a Dominican author called, Domenico Cavalca who must have sensed this sort of absence in the literature. And so he actually wrote a life of John the Baptist in the first half of the 14th century. And this becomes a major resource for artists. They get all these wonderful anecdotal details about what the Baptist got up to. So I thought I'd bring you down to look at this Garofalo painting, he’s a painter from Ferrara in Italy and he paints this Holy Family in about 1520.

    You can see everyone present. You can identify the Virgin on the right hand side holding the young Christ child. On the left, you have both Elizabeth and Zacharias and the young John the Baptist. Here with this wonderful headdress and flowers.

    BEN QUASH:    He’s always got a way with animals too because he’s got a bird in his hand, hasn’t he?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. Actually, that bird is a goldfinch.

    BEN QUASH:    A symbol of the Passion of Christ and the suffering of Christ.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. That’s because it was believed according to tradition, that goldfinch swooped down as Christ was carrying the Cross up to Calvary and plucked a thorn from the Crown of Thorns embedded in Christ’s forehead and was splashed with his blood and so that’s how the goldfinch received that splash of red.

    BEN QUASH:    Gosh, so that adds a new dark undercurrent to the painting, doesn’t it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. On the surface, perhaps all sweetness where the young children are about to embrace but then you realise that actually, the young child is reaching for that goldfinch held by John the Baptist.

    BEN QUASH:    That ambiguity is very moving in a way because he’s got a rather knowing face as if he’s wise before his time and he knows what’s to come even at this tender age. And both fears it and knows he must also play his part in preparing Christ for it. I feel as if the ambiguity in their gestures is reflected in their standing on that rocking cradle. It’s like they're on either side of the seesaw.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Exactly, again, that surface is a sweet, tender thing, beautiful child’s cradle. Then you realise that actually, it’s quite dangerous. It’s rocky. And as they both step on it, the balance is going to switch here in this moment where Christ grabs at his future, as it were, in the form of the goldfinch. Things are about to change. This type of object was particularly popular in Florence, actually. Representations of the young John the Baptist and the Christ Child were very popular, specifically the Baptist because he of course, was and still is the patron saint of that city. In the National Gallery, we have a beautiful Bronzino painting made in Florence of the young John the Baptist with the Christ Child which I think we should look at next.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, let’s.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So here’s Bronzino’s Holy Family. This is painted in about 1540 in Florence, and is a really nice example of that tradition of that popularity of the young John the Baptist.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s the family is contracted and John is really included in the embrace of the Virgin along with the Christ child.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    You can identify the young Baptist because you see just at the very bottom, his camel hair shirt. He’s holding the baptismal cup. But he’s also holding some strawberries, proffering strawberries to the young Christ child, you can imagine, in his right hand. And usually, strawberries are associated with the fruit of Paradise. So again this foreshadowing, as it were, or looking ahead to the next narrative moment. You can see, actually, he’s lost one of his attributes. It’s been taken up by the Christ child, the reed cross.

    BEN QUASH:    The reed cross. It’s as if the things of their future are their present playthings. Just as in Garofalo that we've looked at a moment ago where the goldfinch was a foretaste of things to come, all of these things are anticipating their future. The flowers, the garland of flowers that the Christ Child has on his head. Does that anticipate the Crown of Thorns?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I think it must. Again, something sweet but we, the beholder, are completing the picture.

    BEN QUASH:    We know that there's more.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes. As soon as we see that reed cross, we’d think of the crucifixion. As soon as we see those delicate, sweet flowers, perhaps celebratory flowers, we think about another crown that the child will wear.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    There's something, a quite interesting detail that’s hard to make out. But in the upper left hand corner, you’ll see in the landscape, there seems to me to be some sort of monastic complex. It’s not part of the story, but yet it anticipates the time after both the Christ Child and John the Baptist and Elizabeth and the Virgin are dead. This will be the continuing, the remembering of that tradition through ritual, through prayer, the commemoration.
    While Cavalca doesn’t mention these monastic buildings in the early life of John the Baptist, he does mention that the young John was actually present at the nativity of Christ. Here at the National Gallery we own a picture by a Sienese artist called Sodoma that actually represents this very scene. And rather sweetly it also includes the shepherds and in the very distance the imminent arrival of the Magi.

    BEN QUASH:    Gosh, so the full cast of characters.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s a rather packed composition, yes. Very unlike for example, our Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’, really restricts it down to the main key players and focuses instead on the very close intimate relationship between the young Baptist and the Christ Child.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So here’s Leonardo’s famous Virgin of the Rocks and you can see how it gets its name, this altarpiece, from its extraordinary, almost primordial, landscape that the sacred figures are placed in. And you have the Virgin at the centre and your eye moves beautifully around the painting; is guided through the gestures that Leonardo has created. I love the way the Virgin is reaching her arm over and sort of protectively encompassing the young Baptist but she also seems to be presenting him to the Christ Child here. And you can see that at a later moment, probably by Leonardo himself he realiSed that the similarities between the Christ Child and the Baptist were such that he had to add additional attributes to distinguish them a little bit. So we have the inclusion of the halo on the Christ Child and the Baptist but also the addition of the cross slung over the young Baptist’s shoulder.

    BEN QUASH:    The similarity of these two figures becomes an issue.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It might have been a problem for viewers, exactly, so he had to distinguish them a little bit further. But you can see already he wears little furs and of course the Christ Child would be identifiable by his blessing gesture.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s almost as if in that gesture of recognition and blessing he’s acknowledging something that he will later in his life utter that this figure, John the Baptist, is more than a prophet. The similarity too recalls the fact that their birthdays were both celebrated from the very early centuries of the Christian Church, the only two birthdays celebrated by the church until the Middle Ages. And indeed his birthday is placed very specifically at the opposite end of the year from Christ’s so significant was he. His is a sort of summer Christmas, it’s on the 24th of June, six months away from Christmas Eve. There’s a specific reason too because the days after June the 24th, after midsummer, begin to get shorter and the days after Christmas begin to get longer. That recollects the fact that the Baptist must decrease, as he says, in order that Christ may increase. It’s a beautiful placing of these birthdays. And as I look at these two children I’m put in mind of the beginnings of their lives, their births.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    This landscape is extraordinary and no one really other than Leonardo sets his sacred figures in something so otherworldly. But it does call to mind a time before humans populated the earth, before they started their constructions and I wonder if there might also be some allusion to the wilderness?

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, it’s outside time as it were, untouched by human artifice as you say and yet that’s also a feature of the earthly wilderness and that’s where this young Baptist is going to make his way eventually, begin his preaching and finally baptise Jesus Christ. And it’s the wilderness that’s the subject of our next episode

    Episode 4: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Infancy

    The Bible reveals very little about the childhood of John the Baptist. In the 14th century however, a Dominican friar called Domenico Cavalca wrote a biography of the saint that filled in the gaps. This work's popularity inspired Italian Renaissance artists to represent new episodes from his life and to show the infant Baptist in the company of the Christ Child.

    Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Virgin of the Rocks', about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8, Bronzino's 'The Madonna and Child with Saints', probably about 1540 and Garofolo's 'The Holy Family with Saints', about 1520

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    The Bible reveals very little about the childhood of John the Baptist. In the 14th century however, a Dominican friar called Domenico Cavalca wrote a biography of the saint that filled in the gaps. This work's popularity inspired Italian Renaissance artists to represent new episodes from his life and to show the infant Baptist in the company of the Christ Child.

    Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Virgin of the Rocks', about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8, Bronzino's 'The Madonna and Child with Saints', probably about 1540 and Garofolo's 'The Holy Family with Saints', about 1520

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    Read More
     thumbnail10:02

    Episode 4: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Infancy

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA: So this episode, we’ll explore John the Baptist’s time in the wilderness. I think one of the ideal pictures to discuss is Giovanni di Paolo’s ‘Young John the Baptist’. It’s one of my favorite pictures of the scene.

    You can see the young boy of a bit of an indeterminate age. He looks like a pre-teen here, leaving the crenellated, fortified walls of an Italian Renaissance City. You can see he’s just stepping out of that city gate into the wilderness. The young boy is actually represented twice. You see he’s both in the lower left and then up again, we see him as he ventures into sort of quite scary-looking hills.

    BEN QUASH:    Crazy shapes in the mountains. And it’s interesting that in the European imagination, desert simply meant empty space but empty space in Europe isn't sandy desert as we might think of it. It’s just where people don’t live. For that reason, I find it especially interesting with as you say, he’s not just making one transition. He looks to me like little Dick Whittington with his knapsack over his shoulder but the doing the opposite of Dick Whittington because he’s not going off to the big city. He’s quitting the big city, heading off into the countryside. But he isn't even going to be satisfied with the cultivated countryside. He really wants to go to where no one lives and that’s up in the mountains in his second appearance, in his second transition. Two sorts of boundaries are crossed in his journey.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It dramatizes that distance, doesn’t it? I love how Giovanni di Paolo’s represented this. He’s created this sort of aerial perspective of the cultivated land. You can see the patches of green. Much as that’s what you see when you fly over them  today, that’s how you read the earth from above.

    BEN QUASH:    What a feat of imagination.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s just so clever. He’s left that cultivated land and as you say, he’s making, winding his way up into these very ominous looking rocks.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s interesting you say he could be pre-teen because some of the very early church fathers commenting on material that isn't in the Bible, imagining what John might have been doing as it were between the first part of his story when he was born and named and then his appearance on the banks of the river Jordan. They imagined that almost as soon as he could walk, he headed off into the wilderness. That was important in their minds because he had to be kept pure. That the task, the great task he would have of baptising Christ required him to be pure. The best place to stay pure is in the wilderness so off he goes, pretty much as soon as possible which means that he can't be reliant on any of the ordinary things, the comforts of life that go with the city life or even cultivated rural life. He’s got to be radically reliant on God and on the things of wild nature.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    The youth that he's represented as enhances this idea of his vulnerability and the need to rely both on God and on his own self-sufficiency. Actually, we have another painting in the National Gallery by an unknown Italian artist that is the next step. This is an artist imagining how John might have been self-sufficient in the wilderness. I think we should have a look at that next.

    BEN QUASH:    Wonderful.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben, I’ve brought you up here to Conservation so we could have a closer look at a painting that’s not currently on display.

    Now, we’re skipping ahead 200 years in the history of art. We moved from mid-15th century to mid-17th century. We have here a representation by an Italian artist, we don’t know who, of John the Baptist in the wilderness. You see he’s a little bit older than he was portrayed in the Giovanni di Paolo.

    BEN QUASH:    A teenager.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I was suggesting that this painting might allude to how the Baptist was self-sufficient in the wilderness. I wanted to draw your attention to this ingenious little invention that he seems to have made.

    BEN QUASH:    There's a natural spring coming out from the rock which he’s channeled using a reed, the same sort of material as his famous reed cross.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, his attribute

     BEN QUASH:    Propped in the cleft of another reed. Extraordinarily, therefore sort of echoing the cruciform shape, a crossbar and an upright. Yet this cross channels to him the water of life, the water that he depends on. That’s theologically, very rich, isn't it?JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Very eloquent. The idea that the wilderness isn't just a place of absence, it could actually provide.

    BEN QUASH:    It reminds me too of Moses feeding the Israelites in the wilderness. As lead them through, he struck … there's a story of Moses striking a rock and water flowed out of it. So again, the provision the provision by God in the wilderness of water. There's something that the Baptist, like Moses, again, a sort of tradition of Old Testament prophet-hood, that he channels.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And obviously, water being so key to the figure of the Baptist, anticipating the future baptisms that he will perform. And sort of the next moment, you wonder then, “What happens to the Baptist in the wilderness?” Actually, I’ve asked Conservation to display another picture that we own just beside here for us to have a look at.

    This is Moretto da Brescia’s painting from the early 1520’s it’s an extremely unusual iconography. You have a kneeling John the Baptist, a little older than we’ve seen him.

    BEN QUASH:    He's come from boy to a teenager. Now, he’s a young man.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, grown man. He's kneeling quite humbly at the banks of the river Jordan, we can imagine, perhaps. You actually have Christ in a gesture of blessing before him.

    BEN QUASH:    There's a very famous line in the Gospels about the relation between the two, Christ and John the Baptist in which the Baptist says of Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease. There's one who comes after me who is greater than I am and he must increase and I must decrease.” The way they're related to each other, physically, expresses just that change in relationship. He’s falling down onto his knees.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    In humility.

    BEN QUASH:    Christ on slightly higher ground, raising his hand above him.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And there's something very interesting about this steep, rocky path. You almost imagine that after being blessed by Christ, the young Baptist might stand up and make his way back into the city.

    BEN QUASH:    To me it looks almost like a moment of ordination or at least commissioning, as if Christ is saying, “Now, you're ready to go and begin your public ministry.” He’s about to go public and begin the preaching for which he’s famous, on the banks of the Jordan and all the city of Jerusalem is going to discover him and come out to find out what he’s got to say.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And we’ll focus on the preaching in our next episode.

    Episode 5: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Wilderness

    John the Baptist's role throughout his life was to prepare the way for Christ's ministry on earth, that is, the travelling, teaching and preaching Christ would begin after his baptism by John. To prepare himself for this great task, the young John the Baptist left the city of Jerusalem for the wilderness. Alone and reliant on nature, he becomes the emaciated, tousle-haired figure so often depicted in art.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash take a close look at an Italian Renaissance predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo, 'Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert', 1454 and pay a visit behind the scenes to see an anonymous Italian artist's depiction of 'Saint John the Baptist' in the wilderness of about 1540-60 and Moretto da Brescia's 'Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist', probably 1640-60.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    John the Baptist's role throughout his life was to prepare the way for Christ's ministry on earth, that is, the travelling, teaching and preaching Christ would begin after his baptism by John. To prepare himself for this great task, the young John the Baptist left the city of Jerusalem for the wilderness. Alone and reliant on nature, he becomes the emaciated, tousle-haired figure so often depicted in art.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash take a close look at an Italian Renaissance predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo, 'Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert', 1454 and pay a visit behind the scenes to see an anonymous Italian artist's depiction of 'Saint John the Baptist' in the wilderness of about 1540-60 and Moretto da Brescia's 'Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist', probably 1640-60.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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    Episode 5: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Wilderness

    Movie
  • JENNIFER SLIWKA: Ben, I thought we’d start this episode, which focuses on the preaching of John with our beautiful little Raphael predella panel, which he painted in about 1505. 

    And I’m always struck here by the fact that even though John is raised up on this natural mound, almost like a pulpit, the attention seems to be more on the gathering of the figures coming to listen to him.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes. Maybe we even see ourselves, or are encouraged to see ourselves in them, and its helping us to think what it is to be a congregation to listen to preaching. When I look at this I always think of the famous early English composer, Orlando Gibbons’s setting of that early part of John’s story, where he’s preaching, and all of Jerusalem and Judea come to hear him. It’s called This is the Record of John, and one of the things that he sets is the line that John preaches to the people, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. He’s summoning them to prepare themselves, and some seem more ready to be prepared than others.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That’s actually a very serious message, and quite a stern one, and you can almost imagine that reflected in that very composed but stern-looking saint. But there’s something there, and my eye is lead around the painting to think about the different kinds of attention that people are giving to this very important message. This figure, leaning on his chin, seems to be very focused and intent, whereas this more portly figure is slightly distracted, and looking away.

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely. He carries the world in his belly, and has other things to think about, like his dinner.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Exactly, but also the sweet inclusion of these little children, who seem to be pulling at their father’s leg.

    BEN QUASH:    Very sweet, and I’m fascinated by them, because, again, part of the content of the Baptist preaching is this line that the Lord can raise up children of Abraham, even from the stones, which is, perhaps, I wonder being illustrated here by the fact that they’re sitting on a rock, and they’re in a state of innocence, aren’t they, they’re naked. And I have seen other images of the Baptist preaching where you often see a small infant, so perhaps there’s a reference by Raphael, by the patron, a direct reference to this little detail in the Gospel.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Well, this painting seems to focus a little bit more on the congregation, and their response, let’s say, to John’s message. We have another painting here in the National Gallery of the same subject, by an artist called Mola, and there, it’s quite interesting, the focus seems to be on the message instead, and so there’s a slight nuance change, so perhaps we ought to look at that picture next.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    This painting’s by an artist called Pier Francesco Mola, and it dates to about 1640, and as you’ll see, it’s the same subject as the Raphael little predella panel that we just looked at. But I wanted to show it to you, because the focus seems to be quite different in this canvas. If you remember what we talked about in the Raphael, we talked about the congregation being the focus of the attention.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, and they’ve shrunk here to just a few representative figures …

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Exactly.
     
    BEN QUASH:    … and John is center stage.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    He is. He’s highlighted, quite literally highlighted, and if you look very closely you can see that his mouth is open, he’s very actively preaching in this moment.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s always struck me as one of the challenges of showing, in a visual image, the act of preaching, which is an auditory experience, and what, as it were, visual tricks can you use to suggest a moment of speech? The open mouth is obviously one, and the gesticulating finger captures in a physical movement something of what preaching is all about.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Preaching is directing …  directing one’s mind, isn’t it?

    BEN QUASH:    And directing, specifically.  Christian preaching is directing towards the figure of Christ and again, a familiar passage from the Gospels comes to mind here, John says there is one who comes after me, who is greater than I am, and who was before me, which is a peculiar way of putting it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s quite convoluted, in the Gospel passage, but actually, you can imagine someone like Mola picking that up, and saying. “How am I going to make that convoluted passage into something very legible?” and in fact, it is here, and you’ll see that the reed cross and that pointing gesture of the Baptist, so clearly direct our gaze back to the figure of Jesus …

    BEN QUASH:    It is like a massive arrow.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It is. Actually, that gesture itself becomes an attribute of the Baptist, if you start looking at images of the Baptist, it’s always that pointing gesture that’s part of the message.

    BEN QUASH:    That’s very true. Along with the other things we’ve already spotted, his camel skin, his reed cross, his banderole, the hand itself, and the pointing hand.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It stands in for the whole message.

    And actually the National Gallery has a beautiful altarpiece by Parmigianino which might have the most dramatic example of that pointing finger. I think we should look at that painting next.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s nearby, isn’t it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben, this is the Parmigianino altarpiece that I was telling you about, with its extraordinary figure of John the Baptist in the foreground.

    BEN QUASH:    And that preternaturally long finger.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It might be better to look at the altarpiece from here, because it really suits a bit of distance, given its scale.
    BEN QUASH:    And the finger reminds me, again, that preaching is a sort of pointing, but a non-literal pointing.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That makes sense for this painting, for this altarpiece, because it’s actually a non-narrative altarpiece, as well, a non-literal.

    BEN QUASH:    Not a literal scene.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, because you would never get this combination of characters altogether. John appears almost preaching, but also in the wilderness, together with another penitential saint who we often see in the wildernesses, a sleeping Saint Jerome, in this case, and of course the Virgin and Child, the child to whom he points so emphatically.
    And it’s not just that emphatic pointing gesture that strikes you. The face of John the Baptist in this is so engaging, almost that piercing gaze, and that gaze combined with this very complicated, twisting pose … isn’t that extraordinary?
    BEN QUASH:    His legs face us, but his body then turns all the way round and backwards, and it reminds me that one of the images used by early Christian commentators of the Baptist was that he is a fibula, which is the Latin word for a brooch, and I think it is because a brooch is hinged in a certain way, and as we’ve noted before the Baptist is like a hinge between the old and the new order of things, the last prophet, the first saint, and here his body expresses that sense of being a hinge. It pivots and directs us further up, and further into the painting. And the gaze initially arrests us, but says, “Don’t stop with me. Start with me, but don't stop with me, go further”, and it’s like he becomes a conduit for our own gaze.
     
    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That is the message of the preaching. He is preaching, and directing our view up towards this extraordinary Christ Child, who actually, particularly from this distance, you see he’s stepping out towards us, that hovering foot. So as the Baptist moves back, the Christ Child moves forward. He’s making way, as it were.

    BEN QUASH:    I’m struck by the leopard skin that he has, instead of his familiar camel.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, it’s sort of draped over his thigh.

    BEN QUASH:    It reminds me of the Roman god Bacchus, who’s often depicted with a leopard skin, and there is something a bit Bacchic, isn’t there, about John?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, actually in a few iconographic traditions, he seems to appropriate, or acquire Bacchus’s attributes, and sometimes even wears a crown of vines in his hair, and there’s something about associating those two kinds of wildernesses, the wildness of Bacchus.

    BEN QUASH:    Yeah, outside the walls of the city and both disrupt convention and destabilise things a bit.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely, so he’s absorbed and taken on some of those characteristics of the Roman god. Isn’t that extraordinary the way there’s also, if you make out just in the left hand side, in all of these amazing skins that he’s wearing, can you see there’s a cup attached to his belt?

    BEN QUASH:    Yes, on his hip.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes.

    BEN QUASH:    And that tells us what all of this preparing the way is ultimately for, he is preparing the way of the Lord but for a very specific purpose, which is the Baptism.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    The baptism, exactly. And actually that will be the subject of our next episode.

    Episode 6: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Preaching

    John the Baptist returns from the wilderness to begin preaching in Jerusalem. His message is 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord'. Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at National Gallery masterpieces by Raphael, Mola and Parmigianino to discover how artists have translated the Baptist's spoken word into paint and how his most recognisable gesture - the pointing finger - communicates his message.

    In this episode we discuss Raphael's 'Saint John the Baptist Preaching', 1505, Pier Francesco Mola's 'Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness', about 1640 and Parmigianino's monumental 'The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome', 1526-7.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    John the Baptist returns from the wilderness to begin preaching in Jerusalem. His message is 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord'. Art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash look at National Gallery masterpieces by Raphael, Mola and Parmigianino to discover how artists have translated the Baptist's spoken word into paint and how his most recognisable gesture - the pointing finger - communicates his message.

    In this episode we discuss Raphael's 'Saint John the Baptist Preaching', 1505, Pier Francesco Mola's 'Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness', about 1640 and Parmigianino's monumental 'The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome', 1526-7.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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     thumbnail09:17

    Episode 6: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Preaching

    Movie
  • BEN QUASH:    Jenny, where better to begin this episode, which is thinking about baptism, than Salisbury Cathedral? Particularly Salisbury Cathedral, because it has this stupendous font that was installed recently in 2008. It's the most stunning visual object.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It's extraordinary, because as you approach the font, the water is so still that it actually looks far more mirror-like with these amazing reflections of the stained glass. You don't realise it's water until you hear the sound of this pouring over the edges, and you realise that this is alive.

    BEN QUASH:    Living water is a wonderful way of putting it and, of course, deeply symbolic. This is the water in Christian tradition, the water of baptism gives life. The fact that it's moving all the time, not static, but moving all the time, I think, communicates that sense of life. The water has life, and the water gives life.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Absolutely. And you can see how William Pye, who designed this, he's a water sculptor by tradition. He approaches the design of this font very carefully. You can see, not only has he thought about the inscriptions to include, but also he's looked back to the early traditions of baptismal fonts. Of course, in that early Christian tradition, it was a baptism of full immersion. Of course, that's still practiced today, but more often, we see infant baptisms, a baptism by affusion. That, of course, is when the priest takes up water, sometimes with his hand or a little cup or a shell, and pours it over the child's head. It's referring back to this very early tradition in the church, isn't it?

    BEN QUASH:    Just by its sheer size. That's right. And also its shape. It's in the shape of a cross. It's cruciform. This is fundamentally important, as well, because what Christians believe is that when they are baptised, they are united with Christ in his death, and also in what lies beyond his death, which is his resurrection. The inscriptions, as you say, pick up exactly on these themes. This one says, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you." God guaranteeing safe passage, if you like, through death to a safe arrival on the other side.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Part of that passage through the waters, surely, is about that ritual cleansing as well, both literal and symbolic?

    BEN QUASH:    Washing. It's the symbol also of washing, and the washing away of sin, which is a very important continuity with the baptism of John the Baptist. Of course, he wasn't offering a baptism of union with Christ, because Christ hadn't yet died or been risen, but he was offering a baptism of purification, of washing away sins. That is a hugely important aspect of the language that's used in the liturgy of baptism.

    There are many symbols in the liturgy. Water is the central element. It's fascinating that we owe that to John the Baptist himself. In many traditional forms of baptism, oil was used to anoint, and in some cases still is. The dressing in new clothes, white clothes, to symbolise the purified state. Giving a name is something that happens at a baptism, a name to the child, but also using the name of God, the Trinitarian name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I baptise thee in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely. That's essential. One last, very important element is the giving of a lighted candle. That, too, symbolises transition from darkness, the darkness of sin, to light, the realm of new existence, purified existence.
    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That's very interesting. When I hear you talk about light and dark, it strikes me that that's something that artists often pick up on and use it as part of their visual language. I'm thinking in particular of the National Gallery's painting by Adam Elsheimer, who really uses that dramatic contrast of light and dark to make a lot of the points that you were just describing.

    Before we go back to the National Gallery, we should have a little wander around.

    BEN QUASH:    It would be unjust not to.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:     Ben, this is the painting I was thinking about when we were in Salisbury Cathedral and you were talking about light and dark. It’s Adam Elsheimer’s, he’s a German artist, it’s his painting on copper of the baptism of Christ by John. It was painted in about 1599. And the reason I thought of it is particularly, do you see this foreground figure cast in shadow and the way that is sort of playing off of the figures in the light behind him? So it seems that this figure, who seems to be undoing his sandals, is preparing himself for baptism. Behind him you actually have the figure of John in the act of baptising Christ. He’s the one who’s bending over here. Can you see just the key moments are picked out in light, notably John the Baptist’s hand with the trickle of water there? And that play of light and dark reminds me of aspects of the baptismal ritual.

    BEN QUASH:    I bet a Christian looking at this image would have identified this dark figure and perhaps the one behind who seems to have been baptised and is in the light as representing their own Christian transition from darkness to light.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    What Elsheimer’s particularly known also for is his landscapes. You see this beautiful, very German-looking, lush forest landscape. And I’m always delighted by the inclusion of this waterfall that seems so closely associated with John the Baptist. You see it seems to almost be falling on his head.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s true, a cascade there and then another cascade from his hand to Christ. That’s beautiful.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Isn’t it?

    BEN QUASH:    It seems to me that the whole picture, the separating of light and dark, the highlighting of light and the emphasis on shade and contrast to light, has an element of  judgment. Even in some ways in anticipation of the Last Judgment. There’s other things in the picture, too, that speak of that: the heavens opening, Heaven shining down through this gap in the clouds and bringing out where there’s good, where there’s bad, where there’s light and where there’s dark.

        And even talking of details, the tiny, tiny, figures, you can barely see them up on the hillside at the top left. They seem to me to be among these various felled trees, again sort of a symbol of judgment that John used in his preaching. He said that the axe is laid to the root of the trees, the unworthy trees, which will be cut down and destroyed.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, and as you described that kind of rending of the skies, I love how these putti are encircling their arms and creating what I always think of as kind of a celestial architecture, they become like cupola or a lantern allowing that beam of light to enter. It’s extraordinary that Elsheimer can include so much in this tiny little copper, which I think must have been used in a domestic interior. This is a small work that requires this close look at it and examination
    BEN QUASH:    You’ve got to get near it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It provides a very nice contrast with a painting we have here, the same subject, that Piero della Francesca ‘Baptism’ that we looked at in the introduction. If you think about the idea that they’re representing the same subject but in a very different visual language, I think that that language has to do with northern artists and Italian artists but also for the very function of the image. This one for a domestic interior for quiet, individual contemplation perhaps and the other as an altarpiece that would be inviting congregations and that would be visible from a great distance. So perhaps we should revisit the Piero and have another look?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben, this is Piero della Francesca's altarpiece that was painted for the Camaldolese abbey in Borgo Sansepolcro, this little town in Tuscany. Unlike the tiny little Elsheimer that we just looked at, you can see already the scale of this picture. It's meant to be read from a distance. And the visual language is entirely different from what we saw in Elsheimer.

    BEN QUASH:    Curiously the architecture of the gallery gives us a little bit of a sense of it having it’s own space and its own chapel, almost a sort of chapel, isn't it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely, and actually, this room in the National Gallery was designed specifically for this artwork, so that you would be able to approach it in a sort of quiet, more contemplative mode.
    BEN QUASH:    There's a beautifully contemplative atmosphere, isn't it? The stillness of these floating clouds and the sense that the dove, which represents the Holy Spirit, is almost like one of those clouds, just poised, incredibly still, directly above Christ's head.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Almost perspectivally of course that dove seems to be flying out into our space. Piero is known as an absolute master of perspective, and he was very interested in science and in optics. And what you actually see here, and this confuses a lot of people, I think, including our students, but it looks like you can see the pebbles of the riverbed, and that actually, Christ is not standing in the water. What seems to be represented, in fact, is that we the beholder are standing in the riverbed as well. And you know, when you approach a river, if you look directly down, you can see the pebbles and let's say the fish at the bottom of the river, but if -

    BEN QUASH:    If the angle's right, yes.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Precisely, but if you look at a distance, you might well see something like this: the reflections of the clouds, and it seems that Piero has beautifully evoked that in his Baptism.

    BEN QUASH:    And Christ's feet and the Baptist’s feet are placed at exactly the point where our vision shifts, from seeing through the water to seeing just onto the surface, which feels to me like a wonderful metaphor for how you might always see more; I mean, in this scene, there are many mysteries.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    The kind of difference between literal seeing and figurative or metaphorical or spiritual seeing. It's like Piero's riffing on that.

    BEN QUASH:    it's odd that Christ is baptised in Christian tradition because he is sinless, so he doesn't need to be baptised, and John actually says that, "I shouldn't be baptising you; you ought to baptise me." It remains something of a mystery in Christian tradition, but it's often been thought that the main purpose of it is to show his total solidarity with humanity.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    But of course, there're different kinds of baptism, and in this one, yes, we see John's baptism of Christ, but John himself undergoes a sort of baptism, doesn't he? Of a different kind.

    BEN QUASH:    He does. Not Christian baptism, as such, as in the Sacrament, but he, at the end of his life, will be martyred. And martyrdom was viewed by the early church as equivalent of baptism, or indeed, another kind of baptism; baptism in blood. That, I think, is what we're going to look at in our next episode, isn't it?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, we're going to focus on John's martyrdom.

    Episode 7: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Baptism

    John the Baptist earns his name from his baptism of Christ on the banks of the River Jordan. This act marks the beginning of Christ's ministry, when he begins to travel, preach and perform miracles, and later becomes a key ritual in the entry of the faithful into the Church.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit Salisbury Cathedral and the spectacular font designed by William Pye to discuss the significance and symbolism of baptism, before returning to the National Gallery to see Adam Elsheimer's, 'The Baptism of Christ', 1599 and the great Italian Renaissance masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, 'The Baptism of Christ', 1450s.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    John the Baptist earns his name from his baptism of Christ on the banks of the River Jordan. This act marks the beginning of Christ's ministry, when he begins to travel, preach and perform miracles, and later becomes a key ritual in the entry of the faithful into the Church.

    In this episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit Salisbury Cathedral and the spectacular font designed by William Pye to discuss the significance and symbolism of baptism, before returning to the National Gallery to see Adam Elsheimer's, 'The Baptism of Christ', 1599 and the great Italian Renaissance masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, 'The Baptism of Christ', 1450s.

    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

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    Episode 7: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Baptism

    Movie
  • BEN QUASH:    Jenny, this is our last episode and I thought we could begin it here in Westminster Abbey, which is the place of worship of English Monarchs. Where most English Monarchs were crowned and many of them are buried. I wanted particularly to look at this image, which is of Richard II, the 14th century English king.

    You might wonder why on earth we're looking at an image of Richard II in a series on John the Baptist. There is a particular reason for that which is that Richard had an unusual devotion to John.

    He was born on the 6th of January, which amongst other things is a day on which the church remembers Jesus's baptism by John. He in fact, nearly died according to the accounts, and so the midwives did an emergency baptism and used the name John because of its association with that day. Then of course, he survived and was renamed Richard. From that point on, throughout his life he retained this very strong sense that the Baptist was his protector and someone with whom he had a special relationship to the extent that many years later when he was king and he'd had a falling out with the authorities in the city of London in the east of the city, they knew that the way to his heart, to win him back, would be to do something related to John the Baptist. So they staged for him a tableau vivant of John the Baptist in the wilderness in the middle of the Strand at Temple Bar and populated it with dense vegetation and wild animals, and even some relics of the Baptist. Richard was fascinated by this. He spent a great deal of time looking at it and indeed they were reconciled. It worked, it was a good ploy.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    I'm struck by the scale of this image because for the 1390s there's hardly anything comparable. I was reading a little bit about the construction of the panels that it's painted on and it seems that it was once part of a larger construction. It was very likely part of the king’s pew because it was documented close to the altar within the sanctuary. That struck me as very interesting because of course, it represents the king on his throne and what it represents actually was what it once formed.

    BEN QUASH:    So a throne in the picture, but part of the throne itself, and the king in the picture often an actual king in front of it.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    And if we imagine it not here – not close to the West Door on a pier – but in that most charged space, most holy space within the church, you can imagine this wonderful set up between the earthly power and celestial power.

    BEN QUASH:    Absolutely. And it is an extraordinarily powerful image isn't it? The sheer scale of it of course, but the fact of the throne, the fact he's in his coronation robes, that he's carrying emblems of power, the orb and the scepter, and the fact that he's facing directly out at us from the picture. And it's a curious thing to think about kingly power in relations to the Baptist, given that he's a victim of kingly power.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Of course.

    BEN QUASH:    But of course the power misused by Herod and I wonder whether one of the reasons that a king like Richard might have wanted to be seen in the company of the Baptist, to have been associated in people’s minds with the Baptist is precisely because he wanted to be not Herod, a sort of anti-Herod. A king properly exercising his power.  And in other ways, too, kings might have seen a relevance of the Baptist to themselves in that as he prepared the way for Christ's first coming, their just rule and their bringing in the values and principles that the Kingdom of God might have been seen as the preparation for Christ's second coming. In that way, although he's dressed in very fine clothing, not camel hair by any means, he's Baptist-like as a preparer again for Christ. And I think any Christian monarch might have had reason to think of themselves in that way.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    According to some traditions John the Baptist, even after his death, prepared the way for Christ. He went down into the underworld and he dwelt there until Christ came down and rescued some of the souls. So often, John is associated with the Last Judgment and with the preparing of the souls for entry into Heaven. This is something that artists pick up on.
    Giovanni dal Ponte, Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece, about 1420-4?
    I'm thinking in particular of an altarpiece by Giovanni dal Ponte in the National Gallery in which he describes, he represents John the Baptist already in the underworld as Christ descends holding the banner of the Resurrection, descending down into Hell.

    BEN QUASH:    That's fascinating. So does all over again what he's done already on earth, but this time in the underworld for those people who are also waiting for Christ to come.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So always these associations with death and resurrection whether it be through baptism, preparing the way in the underworld and I imagine that these were things that rulers such as Richard II were also anticipating, their own deaths.

    BEN QUASH:    Yes and also that their judgment is an anticipation of the Last Judgment too, that their exercising judgment until Christ's final Judgment.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Actually, that reminds me that this isn't the only representation of Richard II in the Abbey. He's actually buried here and there's an extraordinary tomb sculpture that's all gilded. So we know very well what he looked like. Actually, there's some contemporary accounts that describe him as rather young and beautiful looking and extremely tall. He was apparently about six feet, which for the 1390's is extraordinarily tall. But perhaps one of the most famous images of Richard II is at the National Gallery in the Wilton Diptych where he's accompanied by his patron Saint John The Baptist. Perhaps it would be most appropriate to end on that image.

    BEN QUASH:    And make a last visit to the Gallery.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes, let’s.


    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Ben, this is one of the jewels of the National Gallery’s collection, the Wilton Diptych. We actually don’t know who painted it. It may well have been an English or a French painter painting around 1395 to ’99. And the construction is such that these two panels as you can see are hinged at the centre so this object can be opened and closed like a book. And for that reason it makes it very portable. This must have been commissioned for the private devotions of Richard II who you see kneeling here. He kneels with his hands open in a gesture of prayer. He’s identifiable not only because of his similarity. …

    BEN QUASH:    He’s recognisably the Richard we saw in Westminster Abbey.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    … to the portrait in Westminster. But he also wears his own symbol, which is the white hart. Can you see that brooch on his chest? And the white hart actually, if you look closely, appears in the pattern of his mantle in that exquisitely gold-tooled mantel that he wears. And actually appears again in the entire retinue of the angels in Heaven that we have here in the right hand side.

    BEN QUASH:    So they’re wearing his livery which suggests this is quite a high aspiration on the part of Richard that the court of heaven will be dressed in his own livery.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Indeed. And actually he’s in very good company here. You see that on the left hand side we have King Edmund he’s holding the arrow with which he was martyred. You also have Kind Edward who’s holding a ring, or rather large ring and there’s a wonderful story about that ring. He actually gave it to a poor man or so he thought, who actually happened to be John the Evangelist.

    BEN QUASH:    In disguise.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Exactly. And most importantly for us, John the Baptist here holding his lamb presents King Richard to the heavenly retinue. And it’s beautiful the way the diptych opens up, because actually the presentation occurs across the divide of the diptych so that he is being presented into the court of heaven.

    BEN QUASH:    A divide between Earth and Heaven expressed in the very structure of the object.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Beautiful, isn’t it?

    BEN QUASH:    It is. And so we see John holding the lamb, the Agnus Dei in Latin, the Lamb of God which is a symbol of Christ. One of his famous statements as we’ve seen in the scroll is he sometimes carries it and says “Behold the Lamb of God.” And it’s as if Christ is present twice in the image. Both there in the arms of his mother and again in the arms of the Baptist in the form of the lamb. And when the diptych was closed they almost map on to each other.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    That’s true.

    BEN QUASH:    The fact that he’s with two kings and two English kings and two saintly English kings seems to me really important. Both of them represent a sort of model of how to be a godly king and have already gained the status of saints. Edward the Confessor of course, is the one buried at the heart of Westminster Abbey. There are chapels to Edmund and indeed John the Baptist facing one another on either side of the shrine. So this is hugely a significant choice for Richard to have his three favorites in a sense with him.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Likening himself to them and maybe hoping that in the afterlife he may well be like them.

    BEN QUASH:    He’ll win the halo himself.

    BEN QUASH:    It’s hard not to see three kings together and think of another three kings.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    It’s the magi of course, arriving at the birth, just after the birth of the Christ Child and here they are present at the kingdom of Heaven with the Christ Child there as well. And of course, that feast day of the Epiphany of that moment is January 6th.

    BEN QUASH:    The birthday of Richard II and also the day that the Baptism of Christ was often commemorated in the church.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    You can see all of these elements coming together, becoming part of the personal iconography of Richard II.

    BEN QUASH:    The Baptist’s plainness of clothing stands out even more starkly here than in many of his depictions, because he’s surrounded by kings. It’s an extraordinary thing that this saint both keeps the company of kings and yet he’s a man of the people, a man for everyone.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Very humble looking here.

    BEN QUASH:    Very humble and on the side of justice for the ordinary person. Some of the descriptions of his preaching in Luke’s gospel especially describe him as, if you like, almost somebody to whom people come for advice on matters of justice. He says if you have two cloaks give one to the poor and keep one for yourself. Do the same with your money. The tax collectors come and ask him what they should do and he says “Basically don’t collect more than is due.” Soldiers come to him and say “How should we live a righteous life and he says “Don’t extort money, be satisfied with your wages.” He’s almost like a sort of popular judge, giving verdicts on matters of ordinary everyday justice. I wonder whether in that respect too, Richard might have looked to him as a model for how to administer justice in his realm?

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    He’s suggesting he too is a just ruler, isn’t he, as well in that? Speaking of his realm it’s quite interesting, when this diptych was cleaned in 1992, if you look at the very top of this flag of the resurrection, the white banner with the red cross, it’s often the flag of that Christ holds that he’s resurrected and stepping out of the tomb. When this was cleaned in 1992, that orb, that silver orb at the very top was cleaned and examined, it was discovered that there’s actually a little green island represented on there. That must be a representation of England. So we have a representation of England on the top of the flag of the Resurrection, within the kingdom of Heaven surrounded by angels. The Virgin and Child there, serving as the protectors of this island.

    BEN QUASH:    Under their special care.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Yes.

    BEN QUASH:    And Richard, with the help of the Baptist who’s so kind of touchingly and reassuringly …

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    Presenting him forward.

    BEN QUASH:    ... presenting him, is going to make that transition I suppose to the protection of the Virgin himself with the Baptist’s help.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    From the earthly to the …

    BEN QUASH:    From the earthly to the heavenly realm. And the Baptist is able to do that because as we’ve seen so often he has this very, very special status. He’s very close to the heart of heaven and in some ways he’s even an angelic figure, the one who first appeared as one sent proclaiming the coming of Christ. So he represents one who can cross the boundary between the two realms of Earth and Heaven, who can bring those who wish to, with him. And I think as we come to the end of this series of episodes, it’s a good place to leave him: inthe heart of Heaven, in the company of the Virgin and the Christ Child as one of the most special and most celebrated saints of Christian tradition.

    JENNIFER SLIWKA:    So let’s leave him in the company of angels. We can leave him for visitors to the National Gallery to enjoy for themselves.

    Episode 10: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Power and Judgement

    John the Baptist's proclamations on justice meant that he was often adopted by rulers as a patron saint and role model. According to some traditions John descended to the underworld after his death to prepare the souls for the Last Judgment, and so artists often represent him in scenes of the Harrowing of Hell. In this final episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit Westminster Abbey to discover how the 14th century English king, Richard II, had a particular devotion to the saint before returning to the National Gallery to see how this was expressed in one of the greatest treasures of the collection, 'The Wilton Diptych', about 1395-9.

    At Westminster Abbey we see the anonymous 'English Portrait of Richard II', about 1390 and at the National Gallery, Giovanni dal Ponte's 'Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece', about 1420-4? and 'The Wilton Diptych', about 1395-9.
     
    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    John the Baptist's proclamations on justice meant that he was often adopted by rulers as a patron saint and role model. According to some traditions John descended to the underworld after his death to prepare the souls for the Last Judgment, and so artists often represent him in scenes of the Harrowing of Hell. In this final episode art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash visit Westminster Abbey to discover how the 14th century English king, Richard II, had a particular devotion to the saint before returning to the National Gallery to see how this was expressed in one of the greatest treasures of the collection, 'The Wilton Diptych', about 1395-9.

    At Westminster Abbey we see the anonymous 'English Portrait of Richard II', about 1390 and at the National Gallery, Giovanni dal Ponte's 'Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece', about 1420-4? and 'The Wilton Diptych', about 1395-9.
     
    'John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading' is a series of 10 films sharing the highlights of the collaborative MA course taught by Dr Jennifer Sliwka, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery and Professor Ben Quash, Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King's College London.

    Read More
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    Episode 10: Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

    Power and Judgement

    Movie
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