St John the Baptist in the Prison | Art for A Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-3 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

St John the Baptist in the Prison
NAVARRETE, Juan Fernández de Spanish painter
(b. ca. 1538, Logroño, d. 1579, Toledo)
St John the Baptist in the Prison 1565-70
Oil on canvas, 80 x 72 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist in the Prison, oil on canvas, c. 1565-70, Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, 1526-1579

In the mid-sixteenth century when Juan Fernandez de Navarrete was a youth, a period of study in Italy was a prerequisite for a career in art. Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese were still living and Italy attracted artists from throughout Europe. Navarrete, a young Spaniard, visited the major art centers in Italy and stayed in Venice to study Titian’s use of color. Then, as now, there were cultural differences between Italy and Spain and Navarrete’s interest was in gaining knowledge of techniques, not subject matter. During the Renaissance, the depiction of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses entered into Italian art but were not of interest in Spain where very few nude Venuses or classical themes were depicted. Instead, subject matter in Spain tended to depict religious themes of devotion and piety.

Spain was a world power in the sixteenth century and King Philip II, who assumed the throne of Spain in 1556, ruled an empire that included Naples, Milan, and The Netherlands; even the far off Philippine islands were named for him. He was determined to rule as a strong Catholic King and was intent on keeping Martin Luther’s teachings and the reformation out of Spain. When he was building his extensive royal monastery-palace (called El Escorial) he wanted the best artist available to paint its walls. Titian, however, was too old and his other choices, Tintoretto and Veronese, refused to live in Spain. Navarrete accepted the position and became known as the “King’s Painter.”

Navarrete’s “St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is not filled with superfluous details. John is alone in a cell with a shaft of dramatic light coming through a window fitted with iron bars. In art, John the Baptist is identified by his camel-skin clothes; he is depicted usually as being wiry, not soft as depicted here. He sometimes carries a crudely assembled cross made with a simple piece of wood split at the top with a crosspiece inserted and held together with twine. In this scene, John’s shawl has been laid aside and he is hunched bare-shouldered over a table looking at the cross. His expression suggests this is a time of prayer, contemplation, introspection, and sadness.


At the age of three, Navarrete was struck with an illness that affected his hearing. This made learning to speak difficult and he became known as El Mudo (The Mute). He compensated by communicating through drawings.

“St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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

The Flood | Art for A Advent 1

Matthew 24:39-40 …and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

The Flood
(b. ca 1500, Cherbourg, d. 1564, Sotteville-lès-Rouen)
The Flood
Ceramic mural composition
Musée National de la Renaissance, Écouen
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Flood, ceramic tile, 1550, Masséot Abaquesne, c.1500-1564

Clay often is regarded to be a lowly substance. It is formed by decomposed rock and organic matter and is used to make bricks and drainpipes. It is underfoot as pavers, and in art it is a material associated with pottery and the crafts. It is not used regularly by artists as a surface on which to paint. Masséot Abaquesne’s “The Flood,” depicting the landing of the ark, is an example of the problem with categories when art is shoe-horned into being either “fine arts” or “crafts.” Abaquesne used tiles, glaze, and metal oxides to create a painting on clay; not on wood panels or canvas.

Abaquesne had a successful ceramics business in Rouen, France. His studio specialized in majolica (muh-JAHL-i-kuh) and faience (pronounced fay-AHNS – French for Faenza, a major ceramic center in Italy), and he was influenced generally by Italian art. For “The Flood,” Abaquesne used a tiled surface instead of a large single piece because clay shrinks when it is fired and in the process, large pieces will tend to warp and not remain flat.

To make “The Flood,” a majolica technique was used. The earthenware tiles were fired at a low temperature then covered entirely with a white glaze but not fired again until after Abaquesne created his painting (on the unfired white surface) using coloring pastes made with oxides: cobalt for blue, iron for dark reddish brown and antimony for yellow. It was then fired in the kiln a second time. The work shown here is one of three created by Abaquesne on the subject of the flood. [Building the ark and boarding it are the subjects of the other two works.] This scene depicts the flood after the water has subsided and the ark has landed. In a dramatic depiction of the aftermath of the event, drowned figures are strewn about and a carrion-eating bird is dining on a dead horse. On the right side of the sky, a dove is returning to the ark with an olive branch and God is in a cloud on the left side observing everything below.


Majolica ware originated in Spain and during the Renaissance it became very popular throughout Europe. The name is believed to be derived from the Spanish island, Majorca.

In addition to a glazing technique,” faïence,” is a term given to a low fired non-clay material used in ancient Egypt for crafting objects such as small blue scarabs and hippopotami. When archeologists discovered these objects, the color reminded them of the blue glaze that was made famous in the town of Faenza, Italy. They referred to the material as “faience.” Although Egyptian faience is not glazed clay, the term has remained in use.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

A Chirst the King, Art for Readings November 20, 2011

(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography and to explore other works by this artist.

Last Judgment (extra large size image)
Fresco, 1370 x 1220 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

Click to open Web Gallery of Art display page. Click on their image to enlarge/fit page etc.
Also on the Web Gallery search page, enter ‘MICHELANGELO’ in the Author box, ‘LAST JUDGMENT’ in the Title box, then click on the SEARCH! button for a variety of detail images and commentary.

9/11 story shows the way to bring Paul’s words to life

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good
—Paul to the Romans a long time ago

“Do something extraordinary!” was probably not in the mind or heart of Susan Retik as she grieved the loss of her husband in the events of 9/11. Susan was pregnant with their third child, at home in Boston, when she heard that her husband had died as United Flight 11 was crashed into the North Tower in New York by terrorists.

At the right time, however, she and Patti Quigley, another 9/11 widow, did something extraordinary. Together they started Beyond the 11th Foundation. The Foundation helps widows in Afghanistan to earn a living to support their families.

We have presented Susan’s story here: Is it possible to forgive? It is the subject of a documentary, Beyond Belief, available on DVD (and streaming on Netflix). I bring her story to your attention again after reading it again in USA Today: “Lessons from one widow to another

As we prepare for Sunday (8/28/11) I offer this to you: What Susan and Patti did in the sorrow and grief following 9/11 was (purposefully or not) to give flesh and blood, voice and touch, to the words of the Apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

In our day with the 24/7 stream of news about evil and its aftermath it is so tempting to do nothing because the evil is so great and so pervasive. Long ago Paul spoke words to shatter such temptation, inaction, and defeat. In our own country, in our own day, Susan and Patti have not only spoken the same words but they have acted, they have done something extraordinary, to shatter the same temptation and defeatist attitude. They continue to work to overcome evil with good. And so must we.

Some questions to considerWhat small, ordinary, commonplace action are you called to share in order to overcome evil with good? What community, working to overcome evil with good, are you invited to join (for many together can do more than one alone)? To what community do you already belong where, working together, you strive to overcome evil with good? How will you overcome evil with good in your own time, with the skills you have, in the time you have, in the place you are? Be sure to leave a comment here to encourage me and others.

Well. . . what do you think?

This week we have (haven’t we?) been thinking about Spiritual Gifts (the main topic of conversation on Sunday Morning in the Forum). Rather than cite scholarly sources (which I have been reading), rather than offering extensive quotes, I will offer my current understanding of Spiritual Gifts as an invitation for you to also share.

You and I do not have to be experts, scholars, or theologians, to have an opinion and an understanding by which we live our faith—though it is helpful to let these opinions and understandings mature as they guide us (i.e., let them change as we gain more experience and understanding).

For brevity I will offer an “Executive Summary” of my current understanding. This is not meant to be exhaustive or the definitive “last word” on the topic of Spiritual Gifts—you know, I’m still learning a lot.

  • Everyone, including me, is gifted by God in some way
  • Gifted by God is foundational: God chooses which Spiritual Gift to offer, God takes the initiative, always
  • We choose to accept the gift or not (we always have this freedom, another gift of God’s initiative)
  • We choose to exercise the gift or not (don’t you love this gift of free will?). My own experience tells me that the choice to exercise the gift (or not) ebbs and flows like a tide (though not so regularly). Sometimes I do this easily and well and for a prolonged period (you could float a boat); at other times it is as if I have amnesia (or sloth) and the gift is not used (that boat is mired in the tidal mud).
  • The Spiritual Gift is meant (by God) to be used for the well-being of the Body of Christ (=the Church) and for the welfare of all God’s people and all of God’s creation (=the world). It is not meant to be hoarded, it is not meant to a personal delight nor a self-esteem booster—it is meant to be shared for the good of all (inside and outside the Church, indeed, to be shared for the good of all creation).
  • I’m still working out what the Spiritual Gifts are (according to our “teachers” in the Bible and in our Christian Tradition). As you heard Stan mention on Sunday there are multiple internet resources for exploring the meaning of and kinds of Spiritual Gifts.
  • Believing the Church (at its best) to be organic, living, changing, adapting—the “Body” of Christ—the gifts (from God) are meant to part of an organic whole, not part of some grand Organizational Flow Chart.
  • Closely linked to the organic nature of the Church is that the local church may need different gifts at different times (as communities and their needs change) so I believe a couple of things can happen: the gift you’re given changes to meet the new needs and/or new members are brought into the community with the necessary gifts to meet the new (changing) needs.

That’s probably enough for now. What do you think? What would you like to add (for me and others)? How can we grow together in our understanding of God’s generosity? Leave a comment, please. Let’s see where the Spirit will lead us.

What do you know about faith within the chaos? Maybe more than you think.

Remember? The week began with a story about Jesus walking on the water. Before heading into the weekend and the next (lectionary) story let’s take one more look at Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter and water and storm and … faith. Let’s take another look at what it could mean to us, far removed from that night and the Sea of Galilee, but plenty acquainted with chaos. I commend this reflection about our Gospel Story to you:

In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus walking on water morphs into a story of Peter walking on, then sinking into, the same water. It begins as a statement about Jesus’ authority; for Jesus’ contemporaries had learned from scripture that such mastery over the waters is God’s accomplishment. When Peter tells Jesus to call him, too, onto the lake, the story transitions into an illustration of what it looks like when people express faith in Jesus. Read the entire post: Matthew 14:22-33: Faith within the Chaos

I invite you to also check out St. Peter is walking on the water by Luis Borrassa in our Art & Music category.

Please make the time to leave a comment or two. Please get a conversation started as you consider this reflection on an ancient story which has a lot to say to us 21st Century citizens.