Sunday, December 1, 2019

Matthew 11.2-11: John in Prison

John is in prison. We know how his story ends, and I suspect that he may know how it is going to end as well. He wants reassurance that Jesus is the one. Remember that John was the first to point to Jesus as "the one," but it's different when the end is in sight. John sends his disciples to get the word straight from Jesus. Are you the one or should we wait for another? John's disciples go to Jesus and then return to relay Jesus' message.

The two images here show John behind bars having conversation with people who are presumably his disciples. There isn't a clue that definitively tells us whether this is John commissioning the disciples or hearing their report. Either way, John's situation isn't changed, but if these are depictions of the disciples reporting back, John is that much closer to the end of his life.

The images are as you'd expect: imposing architecture with secure-looking bars cage in a less-than-robust prisoner who converses with a small group of people standing in the stone-tiled courtyard. But each of these images also includes an animal. And they are puzzling.
(Left) Giovanni di Paolo. St. John In Prison Visited by Two Disciples. 1455-1460. Art Institute of Chicago. 
(Right) Master of Astorga. St. John the Baptist Visited in Prison. 17th century. 
Giovanni di Paolo's version (left) has the animal chained to an outside wall of John's cell. The creature is lying belly-to-the-ground and looks away from John and the disciples. In the version by the Mastor of Astorga (right), the creature is sitting on its back haunches, echoing John's position by looking at the disciples wearing a collar but not chained to anything or anyone.

What are these two animals? One could identify the chained animal in Giovanni di Paolo's work as a leopard. The facial features are more cat-like as is the tail, and the spots aren't similar to any other dog in the artist's work. The dogs with the shepherds in his Nativity are furrier than this creature. And without the tell-tale spots. Leopards were known in Italy, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility that Giovanni di Paolo has depicted a leopard. The creature in the painting at right is more recognizably a dog.  

What do these two creatures add to the story? Leopards (assuming that's a leopard*) are symbols of sin or Satan. Sometimes they are used to represent lust. Here the animal is chained. Is lust chained here? Or sin? In this image, John the Baptist is the other being held captive. Is one supposed to see similarities between John and the animal? Why is the animal looking away from John? Add to the discussion that the animal is gone by the time of John's beheading (see Giovanni's adjoining panel in the St. John altarpiece here). 

The dog is a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness. Whose faithfulness is symbolized? John's faithfulness to Jesus? The disciples' loyalty to John? Perhaps this is a moment of transferring loyalties. Perhaps John is releasing his disciples so they can follow Jesus rather than John. Remember that here the dog is echoing John's position, though the dog is outside the cell. 

John's imprisonment no doubt led to depression. So we can assume that John was comforted by the report he received. The voice in the wilderness had, indeed, been crying the right thing. What do these animals add to the story? 

*The leopard as a symbol here may be related to Dante's Inferno, which Giovanni di Paolo illustrated. 

For thoughts on Isaiah 35:1-10, click here.

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