Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chop Down a Tree

Two images. Same subject (John the Baptist). Same setting (as we see him in the gospel lesson for Advent 3C...Luke 3:7-18). Same artist (Jacopo del Sallaio of Florence, Italy). Same pose. Same setting (a landscape). Same colors of garments. But what a difference five years makes. The image on the left was painted about 1480. The image on the right was painted about 1485. How would you characterize the changes?
 (left) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1480. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. See: https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg7/gg7-426.html
(right) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1485. Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. See: http://www.szepmuveszeti.hu/adatlap_eng/saint_john_the_baptist_q_9621

What a difference five years makes in how the artist saw the text. John has aged, and his hair has darkened. The landscape that had full green trees is now mostly barren. The goldfinches of the earlier picture have disappeared from the latter. But the ax embedded at the base of the unproductive tree is much more visible. What had been a detail in the first picture has become the main point in the later version.

The reason for the prominence of the ax in 1485 is probably tied up in the life and hometown of the painter. In the earlier picture the city in the background is Florence, Italy. The presence of Florence is not surprising because John the Baptist is the patron saint of the city. Brunelleschi's cathedral dome is identifiable, along with the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and Giotto's bell tower. The glory of Florence is spread across the painting.

By 1485, though, there was a new resident in Florence, and the city was no longer imagined as a glorious panorama. The new resident was Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar appointed to teach at the San Marco Convent in Florence c. 1482. It was in Florence that Savonarola began preaching about the moral laxness and pagan tendencies of Florence's ruling classes, including the Medici family. His preaching made no real impression on Florence at the time - his delivery and accent were stumbling blocks - but it was the beginning of a decade of preaching that called for reform (in church and at court) and, increasingly, warned of the nearness of the apocalypse.

In other words, Florence should repent, and repent now, because God's judgment was coming. Soon. Or, to quote John, the city of Florence needed to repent, because the ax was already lying at the root of the tree.

Delivering this message didn't provide a better end for Savonarola than it did for John the Baptist. One was beheaded; one was burned at the stake. It might make a preacher a little hesitant to bring up the whole subject.

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