In searching for an image of John the Baptist preaching, I had difficulty choosing from the plethora of paintings available (just do a Google search and you’ll see what I mean). My goal was not to find the painting by the most famous artist, in which case I would likely have selected this one by Leonardo da Vinci.
I could have considered one that shows him among a crowd as he thunders his message of repentance, like this marvelous work.
Or I could have used this one by a favorite artist of mine, El Greco.
But, for whatever reason, none of these notable paintings really spoke to me. I chose instead a painting by Mattia Preti, an Italian master of the artistic period in the seventeenth century known as the Baroque. Preti worked mainly in Naples and many of his paintings are in the style of Caravaggio, with the chiaroscuro, or contrast between light and dark, and the realism that are the hallmark of that oft-imitated artist.
The composition is marked by a large X-shape that leads the eye. One stroke rises from the huddled onlookers at lower left and across the intense face of the prophet up to the cherub peeking down from the upper right. The primary thrust, though, starts at bottom right and proceeds from the woman and the lamb through John’s staff and pointing finger to the clouds parted as if by God. The red folds and billows of John’s cloak dramatically highlight the tense posture and muscularity of his figure, and we see him partly in shadow and partly illuminated by the light that shines from the left. He leans against a dead tree stump and his fluttering pennant bears the words “Ec. Agnus Dei”, Behold the Lamb of God.
This is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted,
“I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So 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?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.
Looking at Preti’s painting, I can imagine myself within this scene. The artist has purposely drawn me in by painting a cropped, close-in view with no background scenery other than the threatening sky, so I find myself standing just at the edge of the onlookers. All eyes are on John. The staff held in his left hand connects the lamb, representing Christ, to his raised right hand with its finger pointing up, beyond, to the parting of the heavens.
The man at far left with muscular raised arms is likely a laborer. The turban and distinguished beard of the next figure could indicate that he is a man of means, perhaps even one of the priests and Levites who ask John “Who are you?” The man leaning his head on his hand seems to gaze a bit wearily on the prophet, wondering what it all means. What about the woman with her back to us? Her hands are raised as if in full acquiescence to John’s words. She wears blue, a color normally reserved for the Virgin Mary, and the lamb seems almost to be coming forth from her. She stares and gestures in rapt adoration, perhaps looking beyond John to the heavens above. If this is Mary, could the figure at left be Joseph, the carpenter who raises Jesus as his own?
The commanding figure of the preacher glances directly at me, as does the cherub. John’s gaze seems to ask me the same question posed to him by the priests: “Who are you?” Indeed, who am I? Which of the characters here do I most identify with. Am I the slightly bemused man with my head on my hand, hearing about the Good News but not sure how to act upon it? Am I the priest or Levite, secure in my own righteousness, comfortable in my wealth and position, but reluctant to see the hand of God at work in some wild man from the wilderness? Do I recognize the prophets in my life who point me to God? Am I the young woman who could be Mary, saying “Yes” to the Holy Spirit, truly accepting the will of God? Or could I be John the prophet, constantly pointing beyond myself to the love of Jesus?
Who are you?