May 2017 Print

Saint John the Baptist

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

“Verily I say unto you: Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11); and from Honorius of Autun: “He is proclaimed greater than all saints, he is equal to angels only, that is why he is also, and rightfully so, called angel” (Speculum Ecclesiae).

St. John the Baptist, the Prodrome (the one who runs ahead to make an announcement) has given many painters and sculptors the occasion of representing him in art form. We will in this article divide the life of Our Lord’s cousin into six sections: the announcement of his birth to Zaccharias, his birth and youth, his predication, the baptism of Our Lord, his decapitation, and his incineration.

The Announcement

“There was in the days of Herod a certain priest named Zaccharias of the house of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth....And they had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years....According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when they went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without...And then appeared unto him an angel of the Lord...the angel said unto him ‘Fear not Zaccharias for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John’” (Lk. 1:5-13).

Among the many representations, we have chosen a sculpture by Andrea Pisano on the first door of the baptistry of Florence. The sculptor showed only the two people, the angel and Zaccharias talking near an altar surmounted by a single arcade destined to recall in schematic form the place of the apparition. He remembered a precise detail from St. Luke’s text: Zaccharias was offering incense. The priest, wearing a tiara, is balancing a censor with his right hand.

Andrea Pisano is one of the few western artists who represented the second scene narrated by St. Luke: “And, behold, thou shall be dumb, and not be able to speak” (1:20). Five Jews stand in front of the priest, and one of them in the front turns towards his companions to explain to them how to interpret Zaccharias’ gestures.

Birth and Youth

No artist has given a more charming representation of the birth of St. John than Jean Fouquet in a miniature of the Heures of Etienne Chevalier, which can be seen in the Condé Museum in Chantilly. Many women are busy watching while two midwives are boiling water in a large vat which will be used for the baby’s bath. All we see of Elisabeth is her face and her white coif. Sitting at the foot of her bed is Zaccharias, who is carefully writing the name of his son while the Virgin Mary, the only one adorned with a halo, holds little St. John on her lap.

One of the most famous paintings of St. John and Our Lord as children is found in the Prado Museum in Madrid and is signed by Murillo. Nino de la Concha shows the child Jesus standing up and graciously leaning toward St. John, who is half kneeling and holding a cross with a long staff with a pennant. Jesus is holding a shell, whence the name of the painting, and gives St. John a drink. A crouching lamb is watching the peaceful scene.

The Baptist’s Prediction

“In those days came John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Mt. 3:1). “Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came unto John, the son of Zaccharias, in the wilderness” (Lk. 3:2). We understand that John obeys the mysterious voice of grace, an interior appeal.

The greatest work of art inspired by the Predication of St. John the Baptist is the painting of Rembrandt housed in the museum of Berlin The artist opposed in powerful contrast, the passion which animates the Precursor, standing on a hill, his body slightly leaning forward, his left hand on his chest as if controlling the violence of his heart, his right hand raised as if calling and welcoming his listeners, and the motley feelings of argumentative Jews who listen to him with shades of skepticism, two of them turning their backs to him to discuss the impossibility of the prophecy they are hearing.

The Baptism of Christ

Christ’s Baptism is an essential scene in the life of the Precursor. It was the first to enter Christian iconography. It is also the one to which the most numerous works of art have been dedicated. “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbade Him, saying ‘I have need to be baptized of thee, and cometh thee to me’? And Jesus answering said unto him: ‘Suffer it to be so now; for this it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he suffered Him. And he saw the Spirit of God” (Mt. 3:13-16).

One person always present and almost inseparable of every scene of Our Lord’s baptism is the angel who holds his clothes. St. John wears a large coat to cover his sheep skin. He is usually represented with beard and long hair. In the Cathedral of Amiens, two angels are holding a banderole which forms an arc of triumph in front of God the Father, who is seen in the upper part blessing His Son. The Jordan covers little more than Our Lord’s ankles, and St. John uses a cup to pour water on Our Lord’s head: baptism not so much by immersion but rather by effusion.

Arrest and Decapitation 

Arrest. Two new persons are entering the scene. “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John...for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, ‘It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife’” (Mk. 6:17-18). Having told the couple that their relationship was both adulterous and incestuous, John was thrown in jail.

Andrea Pisano dedicated four medallions to the story. At the top of the door on the right we see Herod and Herodias sitting next to each other on a throne. We can guess by John’s attitude that he speaks calmly. Herod looks unmoved, Herodias furious. The presence of a guard announces what is to follow. In the next medallion, we see two disciples of John with a few Jews at the door of the prison, talking to an invisible John.

Decapitation. It is not necessary to recall here the events which brought forth the death of the Precursor. Different artists have represented the scene differently, some if Salome did not herself witness the decollation. “An executioner...went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a charger and gave it to the damsel (Mk. 6:27-28). But Caravaggio has chosen to show Salome in both his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and in Salome with the head of John the Baptist. The first is the largest painting produced by the artist. It was completed in 1688. It depicts the saint at the moment of his martyrdom. The executioner holds down John’s head while the janitor instructs him to finish the job. An old lady clasps her in horror while the young woman (Salome?) holds a large charger to receive the head. Caravaggio’s name is scrawled in the blood oozing out of St. John’s neck.

The second painting is a late work by the artist. He painted it in the last three years of his life. No longer concerned with the incidentals of the narrative, he focuses on the essential human tragedy of the story. Two women seem to grow out of one body, contrasting the stages of youth and age. The executioner takes no joy in what he was commanded to do. He feels only a stunned emotion in keeping with the somber tones that Caravaggio adopted.


The most interesting work of art consecrated to the relics of the Precursor is a painting by Gerard de Saint Jean in the museum of Vienna. It is part of a reredos which he painted for the knights of Saint John. On the top left the disciples are seen burying the decapitated body of their master while the head is entombed by Herodias. On the front his bones are burnt by servants in the presence of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. 

The disciples of the Precursor had originally buried his body in Sebaste, Palestine, where many miracles took place. Julian the Apostate first ordered the bones to be dispersed, but since it was not sufficient, he had them burnt. But monks behind the tomb take out the bones which they carry to Jerusalem. A procession, with crosses and banners, comes to meet them. The accidents of the countryside, with much ingenuity, separate the diverse episodes one from the other, and the brutal expression of the servants form a stark contrast with the recollection of the monks and with the sickening adulation of the courtesans listening to the emperor’s explanations.

We have seen some of the splendor of Saint John the Baptist in art and must not forget the greatness of Zachary and Elizabeth’s son in the Church.