St John the Baptist | Art for Advent 2C

Luke 3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

St John the Baptist in the Wilderness
St John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Oil on panel, 48 x 40 cm
Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid
BOSCH, Hieronymus
(b. ca. 1450, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, ‘s-Hertogenbosch)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c. 1489-1505, Oil on Panel, Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516

Until recent times, artists were not preoccupied with styles. Their work gave form to thoughts concerning their physical, emotional, and spiritual worlds; art was (and is) a product of its time and culture. When art became an area of academic study, codification was necessary and terms came into use to describe periods and styles. Today, when the work of an artist of the past is highly individualistic, they are recognized as part of their culture but often are regarded as a precursor of a category that was not yet named during their lifetime. The work of fifteenth century painter, Hieronymus Bosch, falls easily into a classification that today is known as “Fantasy.”

The word “fantasy” brings to mind make-believe and the imagination. In art, it includes a variety of types ranging from the playfulness and humor of Disney to the dream imagery of Surrealism (“beyond the real”). It may include science fiction, mystery, fear, naïve art, and various moods as well. A work of fantasy may seem unusual and we may think the artist is surely quite different from us. Many artists, writers, musicians, and actors, however, work routinely in areas of fantasy but remain anchored to reality. On the face of it, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch might cause one to think he was at least a little strange, yet from all indications his life was quite normal.

Bosch lived in the Netherlands and his milieu was very different from that of an almost exact contemporary, Sandro Botticelli, who worked in Florence. In Italy, humanism and the work of the Greeks and Romans set the stage for the art of the Renaissance. The Netherlands was farther away from classical influences and in the fifteenth century, lingering aspects of a Gothic world were still present in parts of Northern Europe. While Botticelli was making paintings such as, “The Birth of Venus,” Bosch’s themes focused on morality. He painted everyday people in scenes that were sometimes satirical and pessimistic; punishment and sin seemed to be a preoccupation. His landscape settings include typically medieval-like imagery of imaginative oddities and beasties that interact with people or, at times, carry on in a world of their own. A lot of side action usually takes place in his paintings.

An oft-depicted version of John the Baptist is that of an intense person clothed in animal skins and a caveman-like appearance. In motion pictures he may be shown as a bellicose man preaching in a shouting manner. In contrast, Bosch’s depiction shows John as a quiet, gentle, and thoughtful person. John, the forerunner of Christ, exists in a fantasy landscape and seems to be at peace as he leans against a rock and points to a lamb. Viewers in his time would recognize the lamb as a symbol of Christ and understand the connection


Surrealists of the twentieth century looked upon Hieronymus Bosch as a kindred spirit. Unlike the Surrealists, however, Bosch’s paintings were not an outgrowth of dreams, chance occurrences, or interest in the paranormal. Bosch’s work seems unconventional to us today but in his time and place he was known as an imaginative moralist and a well regarded, artist.

Hovak Najarian © 2012

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