St. John the Baptist in Art and Scripture

St. John’s message is not just an historical artifact — it is addressed to you and me.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” — Pieter de Grebber, “St. John the Baptist Preaching Before Herod,” 17th century
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” — Pieter de Grebber, “St. John the Baptist Preaching Before Herod,” 17th century )

 In the scheme of Advent Sunday Gospel readings, the First Sunday always looks forward to the Second Coming and the Fourth Sunday always focuses on the Blessed Virgin and some aspect of the Annunciation. The Second and Third Sundays focus on the person and mission of John the Baptist, the last prophet (pace the claims of Islam), forerunner of Christ, and preacher of conversion.

John’s focus on conversion in order to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3) is, as Jean Danielou noted, what makes him the central figure and his message the leitmotif of Advent. The call to conversion appears in at least five ways in this week’s short Gospel:

  • Two prophets are quoted: Malachi, a postexilic prophet who called for the purification of Israel’s worship and morality (including criticism of divorce) in anticipation of the coming Messiah (v. 2, alluding to Mal 3:1, although not by name); and Isaiah (v. 3) whose call becomes John’s motto: “’Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for Him.”
  • John preaches a “baptism of repentance” whose purpose is “the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).
  • Those who came out to him did so “confessing their sins” as they are baptized (v. 5).
  • John is garbed in penitential garb (camel hair isn’t too comfortable) and has a penitential diet (v. 6).
  • John underscores his subordinate role to a greater One “whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (v. 7).

Conversion remains the focus of the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Mark has no Infancy Narrative (account of Jesus’ birth). After introducing John, Mark says that Jesus came to him for baptism; that the Father declares “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 11); that Jesus is then unsuccessfully tempted in the wilderness; and that he then begins his Mission. Jesus’ first words recorded in Mark’s Gospel echo John, calling for repentance: “The time has come. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (v. 15, emphasis added, which also serves as one of the formulae for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday).

The first Advent — from the Fall of Man until the Coming of Christ — was necessary because of sin, man’s need for and incapacity to be saved, and the redemption put on offer in Christ. Our Advent today is necessary to apply that salvation to us, for us also to be converted, to turn constantly from sin and towards God, which is nothing more than two sides of the same coin. I cannot turn away from God without turning toward a creature, nor turn away from creatures without turning toward the Uncreated One. That is why John’s message is not just an historical artifact, addressed to the crowds assembled on Jordan’s bank nearly 2,000 years ago. It is equally addressed to me.

It was equally addressed to Herod Antipas, whose introduction to John the Baptist is shown in this painting by the Dutch painter Pieter de Grebber (ca. 1600-1652/53). Sin is never generic, and John did not preach broad-brush repentance. He told tax collectors not to cheat (Luke 3:13). He told soldiers not to bully or bear false witness (Luke 3:14). And, along with “all the other evil things he had done,” he told Herod Antipas specifically not to sleep with his brother’s divorcée wife (Luke 3:19). De Grebber depicts the moment of that preaching and its consideration.

De Grebber worked in the Golden Age of Flemish Baroque painting. He was a younger contemporary of Rubens and seems to have been active in painting Catholic themes for a somewhat underground Church in a Netherlands that had adopted Calvinistic Protestantism (e.g., in Amsterdam in 1578). De Grebber spent most of his career in Haarlem, west of Amsterdam.

“St. John the Baptist and Herod Antipas” is a Baroque painting of John’s call to conversion and Herod’s consideration of it. As is typical of Baroque painting, if you draw two diagonal lines crisscrossing it, you will identify the two key characters: John and Herod. The two key characters are also somewhat set out and in eye contact, their dialogue indicated by their fingers pointing to each other. Herod’s scepter also points toward John, whose line is picked up by the crossed staff John bears.

As is conventional in Flemish Baroque painting, the key figure usually stands out in bright and eye-attracting color against what is usually a more monochromatic background. Test it: put your hand over the figure of Herod and his entourage, and the painting gets rather dark.

Isn’t John the central figure of the painting? Herod’s scepter points to him and, as noted, the line is picked up by the crossed staff John bears. Caesar’s instrument of power is thus subordinate to God’s (which is a staff of repentance). John is slightly higher than Herod: the king looks somewhat up to him. 

But John could hardly be dressed in the colorful garb of royalty when (a) his message, symbolized even in his clothes, is one of repentance; (b) the Gospel (Mark 1:6) details John’s sartorial style; and (c) the painting clearly depicts Jesus’ question when he asks what people went out in the desert to see — “A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in king’s palaces” (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25).

In fact as in life itself, John is not the central figure of this painting: his message of conversion is. It is no accident that, whenever John is depicted in art, his finger is almost always pointing away from himself. It’s not about him. It usually points to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). 

But in de Grebber’s painting, John’s finger rightly points at Herod because, having hear the call to repentance, everyman’s drama of salvation is played out in him. Herod’s heard it. Now, what does he do with it? Will it be like the seed among thorns which, having heard the Word, lets “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” render that Word sterile and inefficacious (Matthew 13:22)? Or will he receive the Lord’s beatitude, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28)? 

No one can make that choice for Herod. Most of the people in the painting are busy talking among themselves. What did John dare say? What’s the King going to do?

The only other voice “heard” in the painting is that of Herodias. Their sexual intimacy is represented by the physical intimacy in the picture: they practically form one figure which, even for a woman and royal consort in Antiquity, was pushing it. She wants now to get in his gaze (as she once did), since the eyes are the window to the soul, and have his ear. She and what she represents is the moral decision Herod needs to make: do I hear the Word of God through this prophet, or the word of Herodias in my ear? The ideas of a gender factor in politics and of different ideas about sex having public policy implications are nothing new. Likewise, there is no novelty to the idea that religiously-informed ideas about the right ordering of sex can get in the way of how a ruler wants to run his country, be that ruler Herod, Henry or Bill or whether it involves sisters-in-law or Little Sisters. 

We know how the story will turn out: as Screwtape tells us in Letter 9, sex is generally an effective enough means to render one’s religious thoughts a passing phase, a thesis born out Matthew 14:3-11. And, pace those who play down and pooh-pooh “culture war” issues of life and sex in public morality, history shows us a whole lot of politics, economics, and history is driven — for good or evil — by it.

But we’re not there yet. The decision is being pondered. De Grebber captures the moment that Vatican II speaks of when it talks about conscience as man’s most private inner sanctum. No one can decide for me, just as no one could have decided for Herod. But his decision is not about whether John’s teaching is “in accordance with his conscience” (a peculiarly modern fallacy that treats conscience as a moral loom rather than a moral mirror) but whether he will follow John and get rid of Herodias or follow Herodias and get rid of John. 

Every man stands in Herod’s shoes. It’s the cost of being a man. It’s the drama of salvation captured on de Grebber’s canvas, in which we can each easily substitute ourselves for the “man dressed in fine clothes.” 

Dorota Grondelski, an art historian, consulted on the painting.

Photo portrait of American poet and Catholic convert Wallace Stevens (1879–1955).

The Art of Catholic America (July 17)

Art, music, literature — in a word, beauty — have in the life and history of Catholicism been a great evangelizing force. For a lesson in this we often turn to the lasting masterpieces and legacy of Christendom in Europe. But what about on our own shores: Is there an imprint on the U.S. from American painters, poets and the like who were Catholic? On Register Radio, we explore American artists and Catholicism in the U.S. with Robert Royal, founder and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing. Then we look at the ways the sexual revolution has impacted the professions — particularly education, psychology and medicine — with Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute.