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)
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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

St John the Baptist | Art for B Advent 2

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

St John the Baptist
St John the Baptist
Oil on panel, 69 x 57 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris
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(previously posted 12/04/11)

St John the Baptist | Art for A Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-2 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

St John the Baptist (detail)
(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
St John the Baptist (detail)
Painted wood
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
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St John the Baptist

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist (detail), painted wood, 1438, Donatello, c. 1386-1466

The term, “Renaissance man,” (used loosely today when applied to a contemporary person) is in reference to the great achievers of the fifteenth century. They were not only a “jack of all trades,” they also were masters of them all. Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) was such a man. He chiseled stone, cast bronze, modeled clay and stucco, and carved wood as he created a wide range of sculpture including, statues, monuments, and reliefs. This was all done with a high degree of creativity and excellence. Further, his understanding of sculptural space enabled him to be sensitive to how his work would interact in its architectural setting.

The career of Donatello is well known; he worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral and he studied the ruins of Roman architecture and sculpture with Brunelleschi in Rome. In his work, he helped to bring sculpture out of the Middle Ages by re-establishing it “in the round” (capable of being viewed from all sides). His studies of Roman sculpture led to imbuing a sense of personality and character in the faces and bodies of the figures he sculpted. His St. John the Baptist’s eyebrows are raised, an eye is squinting, and in the boney fingers of his left hand is a partially unrolled scroll showing the beginning of the phrase, “”Ecce Agnus dei” (Behold the Lamb of God). He stands with his right arm raised and his mouth slightly open as though he is about to speak.

The description of John the Baptist in the Books of Mark and Mathew give us an image of a fearless, camel skin-wearing man who lived in the wilderness and ate locust and honey. In art, he is pictured often as somewhat like a wild man with unruly hair, unkempt beard, and an intense facial expression. As the subject of paintings, he is most likely to be at the Jordan River baptizing Christ or in a ghoulish scene with his head on a platter after Salome danced before Herod.

St. John the Baptist, in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, is different from most of Donatello’s familiar work. It is carved in wood and is painted. It is the only sculpture by Donatello in Venice and only his Mary Magdalene, which also is carved in wood, is similar in style. Until it was cleaned in 1973 its date was not known. Under the old paint from a previous restoration, it was discovered Donatello signed and dated it in 1438; much earlier than previously thought. How it came to be in Venice, however, is still uncertain. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and it has been suggested a wealthy Florentine merchant living outside the city commissioned Donatello to carve the St. John for the church in Venice.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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