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Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist

ArtWay Visual Meditation 17 November 2019

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Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Zechariah’s Song

by M. Louise Holert

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78,79.

The miracle, significance and implications of John’s birth are brilliantly presented in this tender scene. The miracle of John’s birth is indicated by the elderly Elizabeth – who gave birth “in her old age” – being served in bed by an attendant as the elderly Zechariah, on the left side of the painting, addresses his freshly bathed son.

Murillo captures the moment when Zechariah prophesies to his newborn son, foretelling his mission and message: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” The entire text of Zechariah’s Song can be found in Luke 1:68-79.

The painting reflects a biblical worldview, the predominant European worldview prior to the Enlightenment. At the top of the painting cherubs joyfully observe the miraculous event of John’s birth. Murillo unites heaven and earth in this tender scene, reminding us that John “was a man sent from God” (John 1:6).

John has just had his first bath, foreshadowing his mission as the Baptizer. The bath signifies baptism, the spiritual cleansing that will result as people respond to John’s message of repentance for their sins. The white towels, representing purity, are plentiful and central in the painting.

The scope of the painting calls our attention to the key event in the love story of salvation history – the Incarnation. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah. He prepares the way for the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). To fully appreciate the significance of John it is important to know the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Murillo’s generous use of red has symbolic significance. As red is the church’s colour for martyred saints, Murillo’s use is most likely in connection with John’s martyrdom at the hand of Herod. By symbolically referring to John's death in this painting of his birth, Murillo also reminds the viewers of the proximity between John's birth and death and their own.

The dog on the chair in the right-hand corner of the painting represents faithfulness. It is most likely a symbol of John’s faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, which culminated in his martyrdom. The red tablecloth behind the dog reminds us of this.

Zechariah’s song is a helpful model to expand and enrich our own practice of prayer and praise. We might have expected Zechariah’s prophecy to be all about his son, but he begins his song by praising God for his redemption. He briefly addresses his son and prophesies about his future as “a prophet of the Most High” who will “prepare the way" for the Lord. Zechariah concludes his song acknowledging God’s tender mercy “by which the rising sun” has “come to us from heaven . . . to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

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Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, oil on canvas, 145 x 185 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA. Image used by permission.

Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was the last great painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He created his first successful works – eleven paintings for a Seville convent – around 1645, which led to many commissions. Murillo mainly devoted himself to religious subjects. His models for his large devotional altarpieces, depicting biblical scenes, were often local peasants. In his early career Murillo was deeply influenced by Franciso de Zurbaran, from whom he learned the expressive effect of light and shade. Another very significant influence on Murillo was the Italian painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612). Murillo, whose art is always gentle and tender, admired Barocci for the pleasing softness of his style.

M. Louise Holert is an actively retired Presbyterian minister whose passion is to assist others in experiencing the riches of the arts as aids to prayer. She has offered "Praying with the Arts" retreats for the past 15 years.  Louise lives in Seattle. Her website is: www.prayingwiththearts.com

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1. AT ETERNITY’S GATE – At Eternity's Gate is surely the most empathetic film ever made about Vincent van Gogh, the tortured genius and deeply spiritual artist who opened our bodies, minds and souls to the wonders of a sense-luscious world. Master director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has created a remarkable film out of the passionate acting of Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, a treasure trove of emotions evoked by the music of Tatiana Lisovkaia, the revelatory cinematography of Benoît Delhomme, and the guiding light of the screenplay written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Louise Kugelberg. Schnabel set out to make a distinctly different biographical film. In the Director's Note, he writes, "His was a life lived rich with magic, profound communication with nature and the wonder of being. His unique perspective is one whose belief and vision make visible and physical the inexpressible. . . . This is about what it is to be an artist." He wants the viewer to see the world as Van Gogh the painter did, to experience the feelings associated with the act of creating art, and the devotional nature of the endeavor. "The Van Gogh seen in the film," he adds, "comes directly out of my personal response to his paintings, not just what people have written about him.” Read more

2. LEONARDO IN LONDON - 9 November – 12 January 2020, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London: Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. The Gallery becomes a painting studio, an imagined chapel and a room-sized experiment in this immersive exhibition that leads you through the mind of Leonardo da Vinci to explore his masterpiece, ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’. The secrets of Leonardo’s masterpiece are revealed in four distinct spaces. Each space invites you to look at ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ in a new way. The mind of Leonardo:  Start your journey in a landscape populated by the thoughts and ideas of Leonardo as he sets about painting ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’. The studio:  Discover the secrets only science and conservation can reveal in this projection-filled space which unlocks the mysteries of how ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ was painted and reveals the lost composition hidden beneath the painted surface. The light and shadow experiment:  Take part in the room-sized experiment to discover the dramatic effects of light and shadow on Leonardo’s composition for ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’. The imagined chapel: At the end of your journey, you will come face to face with the original masterpiece where it hangs on the walls of an imagined chapel for you to contemplate how ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ might have appeared in its original setting as part of an elaborate altarpiece. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/plan-your-visit

3. CATHOLIC CREATORS UK SERIES – 28 November, 18.30 u, London Jesuit Centre, 114 Mount St., Mayfair, London: Launch of our new series: ‘Evenings of Art and Faith’. Catholic Creators UK is delighted to announce this. Come and hear from professional Catholic artists, excelling in their spheres, and enjoy a drink or two with a group of fellow creators! This first of intimate networking events will include a performance from Sarah Desbruslais, who is a flautist, performer and recording artist. The keynote speaker will be the fine artist James Gillick, whose commissions include His Holiness Pope John Paul II and the Rt. Honourable Margaret Thatcher. ‘Evenings of Art and Faith’ will be hosted every three months at the newly converted upstairs hall of the London Jesuit Centre. Artists and arts-appreciators of all ages and stages - actors, architects, novelists, poets, fine artists, fashion designers, filmmakers and musicians - are most welcome. Please do also invite along friends and those who may be interested. Tickets are free but limited, so we recommend that you book soon to avoid disappointment. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/evenings-of-art-faith-tickets-81225847697

4. NEW BOOK – William A. Dyrness: The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe Calvin's Reformation Poetics, Cambridge University Press, 2019. The aesthetics of everyday life, as reflected in art museums and galleries throughout the western world, is the result of a profound shift in aesthetic perception that occurred during the Renaissance and Reformation. In this book, William A. Dyrness examines intellectual developments in late Medieval Europe, which turned attention away from a narrow range liturgical art and practices and towards a celebration of God’s presence in creation and in history. Though threatened by the human tendency to self-assertion, he shows how a new focus on God’s creative and recreative action in the world gave time and history a new seriousness and engendered a broad spectrum of aesthetic potential. Focusing in particular on the writings of Luther and Calvin, Dyrness demonstrates how the reformers’ conceptual and theological frameworks pertaining to the role of the arts influenced the rise of realistic theater, lyric poetry, landscape painting, and architecture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 1. Introduction: the medieval context of the Reformation; 2. Like and presence in Holbein, Luther and Cranach; 3. John Calvin: creation, drama and time; 4. Calvin, language and the rise of literary culture; 5. Portraits and dramatic culture in sixteenth century England; 6. The emerging aesthetics of early modern England: a new world with echoes of the past; 7. The new visual culture of reformed Holland and France; 8. Epilogue: the cultural afterlife of Protestant aesthetics.

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