Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:7-18 Part 3
In anticipation of and as a preparation for that baptismal cleansing that washed away all human sin, sinfulness, and weakness, John the Baptist offered those who were waiting a preliminary baptism with water. A popular figure in Christian art, John the Baptist was recognizable by both his traditional physiognomy as an emaciated but muscular man with dark hair and beard, and dressed in animal skins--and his attributes, including a staff, a banner inscribed "Ecce Agnus Dei" ("Behold the Lamb of God"), a lamb, a reed cross, and baptismal instruments. As the "Forerunner" or "One who points the way," John the Baptist was iconographically interpreted as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the herald of the New Testament. In this visual reading, he became a symbol linking both the two testaments, and the two traditions of Judaism and Christianity. His period of austere contemplation in the desert, and his development of a form of baptism in anticipation of the Baptism of Jesus Christ (which became both iconographically and spiritually the foundation of the Christian Sacrament of Baptism) suggest that John the Baptist is a symbol of "waiting," especially of that anticipatory "waiting" that precedes an epiphany. And in early Christianity, we note that the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus Christ were celebrated as the Feast(s) of the Epiphany on 6 March.
As a subject for Christian artists, John the Baptist had an interesting visual history. As with other saintly figures such as the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, he was initially represented as an actor within the context of a narrative or devotional theme. As Christian spirituality was transformed by cultural and theological shifts, so to was the iconography of John the Baptist. For example, representations of his life story, especially with regard to his birth, his ministry, and his eventual execution, became more and more popular as the teachings and practice of the sacrament of baptism increased in significance, and was enhanced by the sacrament of penance. Similarly, the attributes which originally identified John the Baptist became more and more elaborate so that his walking staff and animal skin garments of a desert father were expanded to include an inscribed banner (which became more and more elegant in medieval and renaissance art), and a lamb (often with a wounded side which bled into a chalice as a sign of the Crucified Christ).
Commensurately, geographic distinctions apparent in the symbolism of other figures in Christian art became evident in representations of John the Baptist. By the Middle Ages, northern artists typically signified him as the Baptist by a pitcher or ewer (an instrument of baptizing), while southern artists employed a seashell. Byzantine artists, whether from the fifth or twentieth century, depicted John the Baptist in the act of totally immersing initiates, including Jesus of Nazareth, into the River Jordan. Careful reflection suggests that these differing "baptismal" attributes of the Baptist denote more than geographic region but also cultural and liturgical attitudes toward baptism. Clearly, the theological history and liturgical rituals of the sacrament of baptism could be examined by analyzing of the body postures, ritual gestures, and styles of "cleansing with water" in the Christian art of the Baptism of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist, however, played a larger role in the history of Christian art. By the medieval period, he became a devotional topic in his own right. Identifiable by his traditional bodily appearance and attributes, he was painted or carved as an individual--that is no longer a player in a larger narrative drama. As the forerunner and as the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, John the Baptist began to be included in the visual motif of "The Holy Family," most often with a bodily posture or hand gestures which "pointed the way" to his younger cousin. With a growing interest in the identification of the unnamed daughter of Herodias, and later in the lascivious nature of her enticing dance as a biblical defense for the abolition of liturgical dance, the depictions of the execution of John the Baptist multiplied as a subject of artistic interest. The first to recognize Jesus as the Christ (either symbolically at the Visitation or historically at the Baptism), John the Baptist was also the first martyr, that is the first witness to die for the Messiah. Thereby, like the Virgin Mary, he was accorded the privileged position of intercessor, and was included in depictions of the Last Judgment at the left hand of the Risen Christ as Judge. In this special role and iconography, John the Baptist became a visual and devotional parallel to the Virgin Mary. By the High Middle Ages, the recognizable motif of Saint John the Baptist as an individual with the appropriate life cycle iconography and devotional attention was established. In many ways, this pattern of transformation from an element or player in the larger drama of a scriptural or devotional narrative to an identifiable individual motif with its ensuing iconographic themes, was the common development of western Christian art. Thereby, John the Baptist, like the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, typified the theological and cultural transformations of Christian art and symbolism--for as he waited, his waiting was accorded an identity.
The question of the modern imagery of John the Baptist appropriately arises. As with other figures in the history of Christian art and symbolism, and Christian art itself, John the Baptist has faded into an obscurity and is no longer the creative force for spiritual visualization it once was. One appropriate response is that given the technological revolution, traditional art forms no longer engage or reflect the contemporary spiritual and artistic ethos in the manner they did in the medieval or renaissance world. A further recognition must be given to the simple fact that as with many other images and symbols in Christian art and spirituality, John the Baptist is rooted in an extraordinarily distinct culture from our contemporary pluralistic, secular, technological global village. Such an awareness of the need for the changing reality of Christian symbols and symbolism raises the query as to how one would "image" the many meanings of John in the Baptist in any of the modern arts, such as dance, cinema, television, or photography.