Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cousins and Opposites

John and Jesus almost couldn't be more opposite. Perennially offensive vs. welcomer of children. Eater of insects vs. healer of illness. Born to a (presumably) young mother vs. born to an older mother.

The scenes of their birth are also about as different as can be. In art, the birth of John is almost as common as scenes of the birth of Jesus. One example paints it memorably - and about as different as can be from the stables with animals and field workers painted verbally by Luke and portrayed in nativity scenes in homes around the world.
Attributed to Jan van Eyck (Hand G). Birth of John the Baptist from the Tres Belles Heures de Notre Dame de Jean de Berry. 1380-1450. Palazzo Madama, Museo Civico D'Arte Antica, Torino, Italy.

It would be a shorter list to identify things that are similar between the works illustrating the births of John and Jesus. Both are related to childbirth. Both show a baby. Both have Mary. That's about it.

This manuscript illumination, attributed to Jan van Eyck, show the birth of John in a home richly furnished - red draperies cover the bed, finely carved furniture is in the room. Stained glass windows allow light into the room with plastered wall. John is born into a home and family that will make his early years reasonably easy.

But there are oddities in this image, too. The woman in green is blocking our view of a young boy. Who is he? Both a cat and a dog are shown in the foreground. In the left corner of the foreground are a pair of shoes. Who is barefoot? In the far background - in another room, actually - is a quite old Zechariah, who sits reading a book by the light of the window.

Heraldic shields appear in the top of the leaded glass window. A triskele-like design is carved into a lockable wooden chest on legs (and the scale of the piece seems off when compared to the two figures). At the right of the composition a three-sided stool sits next to a distaff.

It's a far cry from a stable and a manger with cows and sheep, but in reality it's what the artist would have seen as a sign of power, wealth and privilege. This is how the artist perceived John's beginnings. John's relationship with materials things would change over the course of his life. Velvet bed hangings will be replaced by wild animal skins. Domestic pets will give way to wild animals. And John will announce that (despite his easy beginnings?) another is coming whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.

The baptism of Christ is shown in the bottom panel of the page.

Here is John all grown up. See what's interesting about this depiction of John at an archived Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.  

For a food-based lectionary reflection on John, click here

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B, click here.

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