December 10th 2022

Madonna dell’Orto (Venice) – Right side of the nave – John the Baptist among the saints Peter, Marco, Jerome and Paul by Cima da Conegliano 1495

This week I return to an image of the prophet St John the Baptist from Cima da Conegliano. It can still be found just in the location for which it was made.  It is on the right wall just as you enter the Church.  I took this photo when I visited the church a few years ago.  Morning light streamed in from the widow to the right of the painting and you can see it reflected on the upper surface of the painting.  It was in November 2019, just before Covid would hit our world.  The prophet stands before us surrounded by four saints, but it is he who demands our attention. One writer, I came across,  compared him to a rock star. Certainly he is very tall and handsome and Cima used the same model in a number of his paintings. Despite the deliberate architectural setting, there is no “celestial” pavement beneath their feet. Sts Peter and Paul are bare foot as is John.  Jerome’s feet are hidden from view. The suggestion is that this is not a view of a sacra conversazione in heaven but rather a delegation sent from from the celestial realm to speak to our world and the “spokes-saint” is John.  He stands on a block of stone almost as if it were a soap box and he a speaker on the Mound.  Clearly this prophet has something to say to us. He points towards the sky which is visible through broken arches above his head.  This canopy is in decay, and as any art historian will tell you, it represents the old order which is passing away;  that is the pagan world classical antiquity.  But in the light of Covid, I can look at this painting with fresh eyes. The arches can do duty for a fractured, precarious and and fragile world which is that  is the world of the viewer whenever he or she lives. The prophetic words of John the Baptist are as relevant to us now as they were to the Venetians in the 1400’s. These knew plague well. By the 1490’s it had become a familiar foe. They must have known how it changes the way you think, act, focus and prioritise.  Through the pandemic we experienced the fragility of our human biology and psychology, and yet wasn’t it true that while it raged, the blind did receive their sight, the lame did walk, lepers were cleansed and the deaf heard, the dead were raised up, and a whole generation knew, and  for the first time perhaps,  their poverty.  If you look at the the upright pillars you will see that you are viewing the scene from the left.  In other words, you are meant to view this painting as you leave the Church.  In today’s gospel passage, there is no mention of repentance or sin.  Rather it is all about it is about the goodness of it all.  There is much for which we must be thankful this Advent.  Let us rejoice!



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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