November 30th 2019

“St John the Baptist with Sts Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul”, Church of Madonna dell’ Orto, Venice. 1493-5, Giovanni Batista Cima, known as Cima da Conegliano.  This very beautiful work remains in the location for which it was painted.  This altarpiece is  on the right wall near the entrance.  You cannot but notice it on your left as you leave the Church. Its original stone frame matches the stone work within the image.  Cima adjusts the perspective lines accordingly.   There is a trompe del l’oeil effect, so that the saints occupy what looks like real space.  John the Baptist and his position in the history of salvation is the focus of the image.   But, while he has the usual reed-like cross,  there is no lamb, nor is he baptising.  This is not the wilderness because we can see a town in the background.  Nor does he point directly to Christ. He points upwards to the open sky above his head and he looks towards the actual daylight coming from the adjacent window.   The ancient and ruined vault above him must represent pagan antiquity.  The four roundels depict the vices of idolatry,  luxury, violence, and, perhaps, pride. Their dominion will be overcome by the Advent of Christ.   The four saints represent the Christian era and stand like four pillars of this new age.  But in their midst,  Cima elevates John, standing him on a stone pediment. This is the one of whom Jesus said, “There has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Mt 11:11)”.  So John the Baptist represents the advent of faith in Christ, standing as first within an old order which gives way to the new age of the Church.   As in the works of Giovanni Bellini, who was a contemporary of Cima’s,  many of the details are symbolic.  The viewer must make an informed guess.  Perhaps the sparsely-leafed oak behind may recall the words of John: “Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt 3:10)”.  Similarly, the ivy growing up high on the vault may be a sign of its ruined state.  The fig,  which is growing high up on the left,  has no soil  in which to root itself and will soon wither and die.  It may represent Israel.  The owl perched at the very top, which for us is a symbol of wisdom, may well represent the night and the darkness in which the light of Christ comes like the dawn.   The light within the picture does come from the East. This not the midday sun but that of early morning.   Various plants have took root in the soil.  They are healthy, flourishing,  and are carefully painted.  Wild  strawberries and violets may symbolise the Christian virtues of humility and meekness.  We know that the patrons were engaged in the Levantine spice trade and that one had a particular devotion to St John the Baptist.  Their origins were in Padova and  the great Bascilica di San Antonio can be seen in the background.   Their trade brought them into contact with  a non-Christian world, and in 1493-5 its conversion to Christ was a very real aspiration for which one might ask the intercession of  John the Baptist  In the sky the clouds suggest for this viewer, at least,  the words of Peter: “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pt 1:19)”.  


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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