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

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


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.

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.

More from Saint John the Baptist (10 videos)