Besides wrangling children, writing blogs, and making pretty books, I spend a lot of time looking at religious artwork. Which is actually really cool and never really boring, because there is so much variety to religious art that you can spend a lifetime looking at it.
But, every once in a while, I focus on artwork of a particular religious subject that inflames my soul.
For the last month, this subject has been St. John the Baptist. Ever since the feast day of his nativity that we celebrated on June 24, I’ve been looking up tons of artwork depicting his life and the various events of his life.
Why my fascination with St. John the Baptist? There’s a couple reasons for that…
For one, St. John the Baptist knew Jesus from a distance while living in a desert, yet still proclaimed the God’s message, despite everything.
For a second reason, St. John the Baptist expressed his doubt about Jesus and asked for Jesus’ reassurance — which Jesus gave, but not in the way John the Baptist expected.
Finally, St. John the Baptist’s life didn’t exactly turn out the way that he expected it would… to put it mildly.
It seems like there were so many obstacles preventing St. John the Baptist from being a saint at all! In fact, many of those obstacles are the same things that prevent many of us from embracing Christ! And yet, St. John the Baptist overcame these struggles through the help of God and today we celebrate him and honor his position as a saint.
So, I would like to take a couple of days and look at some artworks depicting St. John the Baptist… starting with this one!
This artwork is actually the one that I’ve been staring at for the good portion of a month, as it is my calendar’s image for July. And a lovely artwork it is! It features the Holy Family with St. John the Baptist.
St. John the Baptist wears his characteristic camel skin hide that he wore as an adult, mostly to identify him as a John the Baptist. He also carries a rod with a cross on it, which is a special rod that he usually carries in religious art, probably depicting his special role as the Forerunner, or the one who proclaims that salvation is at hand through Christ.
In the picture, he is handing Jesus a scroll which (though partially hidden) says, “Ecce angus dei” or, in English, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Which is a very important phrase! In fact, when St. John the Baptist sees Jesus from afar, that is what he says which prompts several of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus!
In some artworks, the whole phrase is unfurled elegantly to give St. John the Baptist the honor of his special role as Prophet and Forerunner. But not so here! Jesus, as a child, takes the scroll eagerly away from St. John the Baptist. Why? To symbolically indicate that St. John the Baptist’s message and role as a prophet is going to decrease and instead Jesus is going to be the one who proclaims the Word, for Jesus is the Word!
So, what was St. John the Baptist’s early life like, and did he meet Jesus at all as a child, beyond him jumping in the womb? It’s possible. After all, his mother was Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth when she found out Elizabeth was with child and stayed with her for three months. It is possible that they met for family gatherings.
And yet, Elizabeth lived very far away from Mary. Scholars believe that the distance between their houses is just under a hundred miles. That would have been quite a long journey to make! So, it’s likely that they didn’t hang out with each other too much.
Still, having the two together as infants is an incredibly popular devotional image. After all, St. John the Baptist is one of the few saints that might have met up with the Christ child at some point and experienced that joy of meeting with Christ as a child.
And that is something to celebrate and wonder at!
After all, that is the joy that we experience at Christmastime as we celebrate Christ’s birth.