The central character of this painting is hidden in the shadows: a man with long hair and a beard who seems to draw the attention of the people gathered before him. This is Saint John the Baptist, standing on what looks like an improvised pulpit. The large crowd is divided between conversation and close attention to John’s announcement of the coming of Christ. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how people flocked from Jerusalem, Judea and ‘all the region round about Jordan’ to hear John’s message and to be baptised by him. Cornelis took great care to depict a variety of people, some looking like his Haarlem contemporaries, others dressed more exotically.
Cornelis seems to have adopted the large-scale landscape with a biblical subject from the Flemish painter Karel van Mander. The subject of Saint John preaching was popular in Netherlandish art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, possibly reflecting contemporary debates about open-air sermons by Calvinist preachers.
The central character of this painting is hidden in the shadows. Here, an austerely dressed man with long hair and a beard seems to draw the attention of the people gathered before him. He can be identified as Saint John the Baptist, standing on what looks like an improvised pulpit and pointing with his right hand, index finger outstretched.
The subject is taken from the Gospels, which begin the New Testament and are an important source for the life and teaching of Saint John. The Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 3: 1–12) locates John’s preaching in the wilderness, but Cornelis van Haarlem has painted a landscape that does not seem very wild. It also describes John as wearing clothes made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, which does resemble the clothing of the figure here.
Saint Matthew recounts how people flocked from Jerusalem, Judea and ‘all the region round about Jordan’ to hear John’s message and to be baptised by him. Cornelis took great care in painting a great variety of people. Many look like his Haarlem contemporaries, while some – the group of five men in exotic headdress on the left side of the painting – resemble Pharisees or Sadducees. In the left foreground, men and women picnic; in the middle foreground one man casually leans on a drum as he chats. A small dog walks by, seemingly picking up on John’s voice, while a group of soldiers on horseback appears on the right side of the picture. The crowd is divided between conversation and close attention to John’s announcement of the coming of Christ – the boy who has climbed a tree stump to have a better view is an example of the latter. In the far background, the grouped silhouettes of even more people are visible.
Three distinct ’spotlights' illuminate the foreground of the large, horizontal landscape. Gradually, the greens of the lush vegetation make way for a blue atmospheric hue in the mountainous background. Cornelis seems to have adopted the large-scale landscape with a biblical subject from his Haarlem contemporary, the Flemish painter and biographer Karel van Mander, who situated his Dance around the Golden Calf in a similar setting (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem). Netherlandish artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often painted the subject of Saint John the Baptist preaching, and its popularity may reflect contemporary debates about open-air sermons by Calvinist preachers, taking the saint as an example.
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