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…
…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:
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.