Sunday Morning at St. Hugh's in Idyllwild, California
Saint John the Baptist | Art for Advent 3C
Luke 3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
St. John the Baptist Preaching, 1878, Bronze, Auguste Rodin, 1840 -1917
Painting is physically easier than carving a block of stone or casting bronze; because of this, a sculptor is less likely to take exploratory chances when so much physical work is required. After the Renaissance, painters tried many new directions but sculptors tended to become conservative (an exception being Gianlorenzo Bernini during the Baroque Period) and they often followed styles set by painters and architects. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, French artist, Auguste Rodin, restored vitality to sculpture almost single handedly. He was a contemporary of the Impressionists but his work was not in a particular style. Instead, it was a synthesis of the best qualities of sculpture found throughout history.
Before Rodin was able to support himself as a sculptor, he spent many years creating decorative pieces while working for others. Income from a job opportunity in Belgium (he was there six years) enabled him to save money for a visit to Italy. In Italy, he saw the works of Donatello and Michelangelo and he was determined to devote full-time to sculpture when he returned. Rodin’s first piece after his return to Belgium, “The Age of Bronze,” did not fit the stilted neo-classical taste of the critics of his day and they accused him of making molds from his model’s body rather than modeling the clay. After returning to Paris in the following year, a rough, hairy, Italian man appeared at his studio and offered to model for him. Upon seeing him, Rodin recalled; “I immediately thought of a Saint John the Baptist, in other words, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself.” The model, without instructions, disrobed, went to the modeling stand and stood firmly with legs spread (“like a compass” Rodin would later say). The pose surprised and pleased Rodin who added a further touch by having an arm extended to indicate a gesture as John the Baptist was moving forward while preaching. In order not to be accused again for making molds directly from the model, Rodin made this figure larger than life.
When Rodin was a young man his sister’s death troubled him and he sought solace for two years in a monastery. Biblical subjects, however, were not a major part of his life’s work. During the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, the use of biblical themes in art diminished as artists dealt with problems of form and social issues. Other than “John the Baptist,” Rodin made several works relating to religious themes (e.g. “The Hand of God” and “The Gates of Hell”).
Two bronzes were sculpted and donated to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church by the late Francis Rich, who was a member briefly until she moved to Arizona. One bronze is a life-sized “St. Francis” and the other a small “St. Margaret.” The smaller piece was made specifically for St. Margaret’s, Palm Desert. Francis Rich studied sculpture in Paris for two years with Malvina Hoffman and also studied sculpture with Carl Milles at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Both Hoffman and Milles were students of Rodin.