James Tissot was an interesting artist, for sure. He came from an artistic background where he mostly drew the latest fashions. However, after a profound religious experience, he left his comfortable life in France and traveled to Palestine to the Holy Land, where he spent the next ten years of his life to better understand the life of Jesus Christ. There, he made countless of sketches and over 300 watercolor drawings depicting the Holy Land and the life of Christ.
Which makes it even more interesting to see his depiction of St. John the Baptist.
Because he spent so long traveling the Holy Land, he had a realistic perception of the geography of the Holy Land, unlike many other European artists, who simply imagined, or used their own lands to depict the life of Christ.
When he traveled the desert, he was astounded by what the voice in the desert really meant: a cry in the desert, with all its rock valleys, would echo for miles around.
And so, when he illustrated this biblical passage…
22So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” 23He said:“I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’as Isaiah the prophet said.”
…this is what his depiction looked like:
The Brooklyn Museum, which houses this artwork (though it is not currently on display) says the following:
Tissot opens the section on Jesus’ ministry by introducing John the Baptist, who prophesied his coming, urged repentance, and practiced the cleansing rite of baptism. Calling out from the vast, rugged deserts of Judaea, the Baptist here throws his arms up in the air.
In his commentary, Tissot notes the resounding echo effect in the rocky valleys the Baptist inhabited, heightening his emphatic call to “make straight the way of the Lord.” The artist’s commentaries, which at times read like a travelogue, also provide his readers with details that summon their other senses as they ponder his images.
Living and preaching in the wilderness, the Baptist bears the marks of privation—most notably, his wild, knotted hair, a traditional attribute. Additionally, he wears a rough camel-hair cloak, testament to his penitence, and carries a staff for support in his wanderings.
In this artwork, it really strikes you how barren and really isolated the desert is. St. John the Baptist raises up his arms, putting aside his staff for the moment while he calls out for repentance and reminds everyone that the Lord is coming. And indeed, that is his role that God gave him. As Isaiah wrote, almost 700 years before Christ:
3A voice proclaims:In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD!Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!4Every valley shall be lifted up,every mountain and hill made low;The rugged land shall be a plain,the rough country, a broad valley.5Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,and all flesh shall see it together;for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.6A voice says, “Proclaim!”I answer, “What shall I proclaim?”“All flesh is grass,and all their loyalty like the flower of the field.7The grass withers, the flower wilts,when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.”“Yes, the people is grass!8The grass withers, the flower wilts,but the word of our God stands forever.”9Go up onto a high mountain,Zion, herald of good news!Cry out at the top of your voice,Jerusalem, herald of good news!Cry out, do not fear!Say to the cities of Judah:Here is your God!10Here comes with powerthe Lord GOD,who rules by his strong arm;Here is his reward with him,his recompense before him.11Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;in his arms he gathers the lambs,Carrying them in his bosom,leading the ewes with care.
And so, St. John the Baptist’s voice resounds and echoes throughout the valley, which otherwise would be absolutely silent, and draws a crowd of people who are driven to repentance, in hope of the coming of the Lord.