Bruegel’s The Sermon of St John the Baptist

December 5th 2020

“The Sermon of St John the Baptist”, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566, Museum of Fine arts, Budapest.    You can see this picture in higher resolution at

In this painting you really have to look carefully to see John the Baptist.  Bruegel deliberately focuses our attention first on the crowd who have gathered to hear him and then our eyes follow a diagonal to a light filled landscape through which a broad river flows.  Of course,  Bruegel often showed the key scene in the background.  In this one, John the Baptist ’s garment of camel hair blends into the shade of the trees. He just visible to the left of centre.  The crowd who have gathered are of every age and walk of life.  The message of John the Baptist is for everyone.  There are two friars on the right and near the tree trunk.  On the left, a pilgrim for Santiago de Compostella sits down.  You can see the shells on his hat.  There are representatives of various religions present too.  Notice the turbaned Ottoman Turk on the left and the Chinese man in the centre foreground.  It is really well worth looking at this picture on the link provided above.  Some of the detail is so small you won’t see it otherwise.  In the crowd each face and expression is different.  You can even find Bruegel himself. He is the bearded man in the top righthand corner.   Particular prominence is given to the fortune telling going on  in the centre foreground.  The man who  holds out his palm to the fortune teller looks in the opposite direction from the Baptist.  No doubt , a contrast is being made between the version of future events “revealed” on his palm and that proclaimed by the Baptist.  In this picture some figures stand out because Bruegel has dressed them in pale blue.  There is one such figure to the right of the Baptist. His arms are folded.  We wonder if this could be Jesus?   Close scrutiny of the distant landscape provides the answer.  Just on the bend of the left bank of river, there is a crowd and in the water someone is baptising.  They are barely visible so you need to look at this online.   This is the one whom John declares to be mightier than him and who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.   The real event is almost hidden and unseen and yet from the outset the whole composition has direct our gaze along a diagonal to that very spot.

Bruegel’s The Sermon of St John the Baptist

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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