Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
by M. Louise Holert
Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78,79.
The miracle, significance and implications of John’s birth are brilliantly presented in this tender scene. The miracle of John’s birth is indicated by the elderly Elizabeth – who gave birth “in her old age” – being served in bed by an attendant as the elderly Zechariah, on the left side of the painting, addresses his freshly bathed son.
Murillo captures the moment when Zechariah prophesies to his newborn son, foretelling his mission and message: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” The entire text of Zechariah’s Song can be found in Luke 1:68-79.
The painting reflects a biblical worldview, the predominant European worldview prior to the Enlightenment. At the top of the painting cherubs joyfully observe the miraculous event of John’s birth. Murillo unites heaven and earth in this tender scene, reminding us that John “was a man sent from God” (John 1:6).
John has just had his first bath, foreshadowing his mission as the Baptizer. The bath signifies baptism, the spiritual cleansing that will result as people respond to John’s message of repentance for their sins. The white towels, representing purity, are plentiful and central in the painting.
The scope of the painting calls our attention to the key event in the love story of salvation history – the Incarnation. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah. He prepares the way for the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). To fully appreciate the significance of John it is important to know the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”
Murillo’s generous use of red has symbolic significance. As red is the church’s colour for martyred saints, Murillo’s use is most likely in connection with John’s martyrdom at the hand of Herod. By symbolically referring to John’s death in this painting of his birth, Murillo also reminds the viewers of the proximity between John’s birth and death and their own.
The dog on the chair in the right-hand corner of the painting represents faithfulness. It is most likely a symbol of John’s faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, which culminated in his martyrdom. The red tablecloth behind the dog reminds us of this.
Zechariah’s song is a helpful model to expand and enrich our own practice of prayer and praise. We might have expected Zechariah’s prophecy to be all about his son, but he begins his song by praising God for his redemption. He briefly addresses his son and prophesies about his future as “a prophet of the Most High” who will “prepare the way” for the Lord. Zechariah concludes his song acknowledging God’s tender mercy “by which the rising sun” has “come to us from heaven . . . to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, oil on canvas, 145 x 185 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena,CA, USA. Image used by permission.
Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was the last great painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He created his first successful works – eleven paintings for a Seville convent – around 1645, which led to many commissions. Murillo mainly devoted himself to religious subjects. His models for his large devotional altarpieces, depicting biblical scenes, were often local peasants. In his early career Murillo was deeply influenced by Franciso de Zurbaran, from whom he learned the expressive effect of light and shade. Another very significant influence on Murillo was the Italian painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612). Murillo, whose art is always gentle and tender, admired Barocci for the pleasing softness of his style.
This essay is from the Artway website. Visit the Frick Collection for a 6-minute video of curator Margaret Iacono discussing this wonderful painting.