St. John the Baptist is the Conductor Who Conducts All People to Christ

John’s mission is not just to direct the people of his time, but the people of all times to Jesus.

“One mightier than I is coming.” — Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, “Appearance of Christ to the People,” c. 1845
“One mightier than I is coming.” — Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, “Appearance of Christ to the People,” c. 1845 )

John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ, the last and greatest of all the prophets that ever was or would be. There were many prophets in Israel and each gave us a further insight into the coming Messiah. Nathan promised that the Messiah would come from David’s line (2 Samuel 7:16). Micah situates his birth in Israel (5:2). The Book of Isaiah speaks of the virgin with child (7:14) as well as the Suffering Servant (53:1-12). Zechariah anticipates his humble arrival astride a donkey on a future Palm Sunday (9:9). 

But the groundwork that the prophets had been laying through the previous millennium comes to its culmination in John, “who was his herald, and made Him known when at last he came” (former Advent Preface II). John’s mission is to “go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Canticle of Zechariah). 

John is the ultimate anti-Narcissus. John is constantly pointing away from himself, constantly redirecting peoples’ attention to the Lord and his ways. It’s what ultimately gets him into trouble with Herod Antipas (see last week’s essay). We see this redirection in today’s Gospel. In response to the emissaries from Jerusalem, John’s response is constantly negative, who he is not. When asked who he is, he first of all identifies himself not even with his own words but those of Isaiah (v. 23). Only then does he explain what he does — baptizing — as preparatory to the “one among you, whom you do not recognize” (v. 26). John frames the whole passage by calling John a witness, one who “testifies” bearing witness to the “light” (vv. 6-8) — the “Light of the World” (John 8:12).

These ideas are embodied in Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov’s painting, “The Appearance of Christ Before the People,” and Ivanov spent 20 years painting that huge oil canvas (17-1/2 by 25 feet). 

Ivanov is considered an example of Russian neoclassicism. That should not surprise us, considering he painted it in Rome and spent a lot of his life there. Ivanov also comes from St. Petersburg which, in his day had just marked its centennial. (Ivanov lived from 1806-1858). Czar Peter the Great founded the city to give Russia a window to the West and reorient his country towards Europe. The elite went in that direction: just read Russian novelists like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky to see how the upper classes constantly pepper their speech with French. Neoclassicism — going back to the “classical” forms of ancient Greece and Rome — was very popular in European art of the time, although probably less so in Russia. At the same time, as art critic René Dewil notes, Ivanov uses but adapts the form. “The viewer has the impression of an austere, very solemn scene painted by a venerable painter from times before Raphael and Michelangelo. [But] … the figures are certainly not painted in Michelangelo’s sensual, powerful, but un-natural, tortured way. All the figures seem natural ….”

“The Appearance of Christ before the People” shows us much of that neoclassical tradition. Color and light, but not stark contrasts, are important: there is darker and lighter, but almost no black (except for hair) and little pure white. The horizontal captures your eye: it’s the mellow, lambent landscape out of which Jesus comes. The trees on the left in some sense re-shift and refocus your attention by cutting off the sky and much else on that third of the canvas. Starting with the poor emerging from the Jordan (a smudge at the bottom left) the faces, bodily orientation of most of the figures, and multiplication of people draws the eye in a semicircular, horseshoe motion that leads to …. Christ. The orientation of this whole crowd points to Christ. 

John is something like a conductor: his gesture also focuses our attention on Christ. Conductors unify that group called an orchestra. Try this experiment. Cover the crowd on the right with your hand. John’s pointing to Jesus still keeps the focus on who’s important in the painting. Now, uncover those people and cover John. There’s still some attention on Jesus, but the message is somewhat more ambiguous: should he be there? Is he “the one who is to come?” Or an interloper? In real life and in Ivanov’s painting, John tells us: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:36), the true forgiveness of sins of which John baptism was just a prefiguring. Thus, between the semicircular movement and John’s pointing, we are twice fixed on Jesus who is not the largest figure on the canvas, but clearly the most important.

Another element of neoclassical influence in this painting is the bodies, especially those four naked ones on John’s right. They are presumably redressing after baptism in the Jordan. The attention to anatomical detail and proportion, musculature and form, recalls classical and Renaissance attention to the human form. 

The old man on the ground looking forward at Jesus and the red-headed nude on the left looking in a complementary direction to John at Jesus all reinforce the importance of Christ and the message of John. Even the pair of nudes on the right, by looking back at John, thereby look at the one redirecting them to Jesus. 

John’s mission, in some sense, is not just to direct the people of his time but the people of all times to Jesus. Art critics claim that the foursome to John’s left are Jesus’ future apostles — the young John, Peter and his brother Andrew (one could hardly expect somebody coming out of Orthodox Russia not to remind us that it was Andrew who brought his brother Peter to Christ), and Nathaniel. Peter, Andrew, and Nathaniel are all mentioned in John 1, which is the main inspiration of the text.

Is the old man a slave, happy for the first time in his life, the man in blue next to him the young man who goes away unhappy because he had many riches? (Mt 19:22). We know from Ivanov both those figures are in the painting, although which concrete figures he intended are more my surmise. Serfdom still existed in the Russia of Ivanov’s day (as did slavery in the United States). Sitting just next to John and looking at us, with a red kerchief on his head, some believe is a self-portrait of Ivanov inserted into the scene. He’s not the only contemporary: the figure “closest to Christ” is supposed to be Nikolai Vasileyevich Gogol, the great Russian writer (“Dead Souls”) and Ivanov’s friend. [Want to read something of Gogol’s ahead of Christmas? Try his “Christmas Eve,” here.]

Ivanov’s painting perfectly captures the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent: John, the culmination of so many who came before him, the holy conductor who conducts all people to Christ.

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