Faith through Art: John the Baptist: precursor, prophet, martyr

Caravaggio painted The Passion of St. John the Baptist in the early 1600s. (Public domain image)

By Norman Farmer

In about 1607/8, Michelangelo Mersi (known today as the famous baroque artist, Caravaggio) painted The Passion of St. John the Baptist in life-size figures on this enormous 11 feet by 13 feet altarpiece for St. John’s Co-Cathedral at La Valetta, Malta. 
This month, when the church remembers and honors the only saint whose birth and death through martyrdom are celebrated on the same day – June 24, we reflect on this painting in light of the liturgies for “The Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist” and the Office of Readings commemorating his passion, taking particular note of the homily in the Office by the Venerable Bede on “The Precursor of Christ in Birth and Death.”
“Through his birth [Lk 1:5-25], preaching [Mt 3:1-12; Mk1:2-8] and baptizing [Mt 3:17; Mk 1:9-11; Jn 3:22-36], he bore witness to the coming birth, preaching and baptism of Christ, and by his own suffering he showed that Christ also would suffer … He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life and deserved to be called a bright and shining lamp by that Light itself, which is Christ. John was baptized in his own blood, though he had been privileged to baptize the Redeemer of the world, to hear the voice of the Father above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him. But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such men as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.”
Thus does the Venerable Bede supply a discerning and definitive gloss for Caravaggio’s profoundly sobering and deeply moving portrayal of John’s martyrdom, “baptized in his own blood.” That phrase, in itself, sounds shocking until we reflect that John is the only saint cleansed from original sin in his mother’s womb and who was therefore holy both at his birth and at his martyr’s death. When Elizabeth and Mary met, John (his name already known [Lk1:13]), “leaped” in his mother’s womb by divinely knowing he was in the presence of Jesus, then in the womb of his Holy Mother [Lk 1:39-45]. Hence, the words of the first Antiphon, “The Lord called me before I was born; from my mother’s womb he named me,” which also introduces the first reading from Jeremiah 1:4-10. As The Lord himself said in testimony to John: “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet ...” Lk 7:24-35.
Yet, the defining feature of the painting is that every single detail of the Baptist’s murder and decapitation not only shows “that Christ also would suffer,” but alludes visibly to the deepest meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death: the sacrifice of the True Paschal Lamb and the revelation thereby of the world-changing mystery of the Eucharist. John, his arms tied behind his back lies dead on the ground. His throat has been cut precisely according to the law and practice of sacrificial slaughter, and his life-blood has already run out upon the ground, as the law intended [Deut 12:23-4]. The slaughterer even straddles him, standing over the sacrificial lamb to raise its head and expose the throat. Now returning the knife to its scabbard (its squared tip is prominent), the executioner will next pick up the sword upon the ground in order to sever the head, and, at Herodias’ command (indicated by the nearby courtier) will place it upon the salver held by Salome. Thus does Caravaggio see St. Mark’s narrative of John’s death (Mk 6:14-29) as an image foretelling “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” according to Father Francis J. Moloney author of “Gospel of John.”
Lest anyone doubt that the artist nurtured these themes as he composed this masterpiece, a final astonishing fact invites sustained reflection. Caravaggio signed only three paintings in his lifetime, this being one of them. For when the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence cleaned and restored the painting in 1997, they uncovered his signature, not in an obscure corner but inscribed in the holy blood of the precursor, prophet and martyr, which is situated directly at the Scriptural, liturgical and theological center of the painting.
Caravaggio had good reason to beg for the merciful forgiveness of God. And by affixing his name to this painting in this way, he urges our reflections upon a personal and human element that gives unexpected new meaning to the phrase, “faith through art.” 
Suggested further reading: (1), (2)