December 4th 2021
“St John the Baptist” from the Demidoff Altarpiece, Carlo Crivelli, 1476, National Gallery, London.
Crivelli locates St John the Baptist by the water’s edge and us on the opposite bank. Behind him, the trees have been cut down but new growth is visible between the rocks and around the Baptist’s feet. Plants are growing in the flowing water. A singular green sapling rises up from the waters and a bird perches on its branch. The bird faces away but it may be a symbol of Christ’s passion to come. The saint has the usual attributes of a reed cross and a camel skin. However, the latter is worn with the hair next to his skin, alluding to the Baptist’s time of penance in the wilderness. He looks downward as he points to a scroll, which reads, “Behold the lamb of God. Behold him who…” The truncated trees, the running stream, the beginnings of new growth and the green sapling growing in the water all allude to various gospel accounts of St John the Baptist in the wilderness. Like “St Andrew”, featured last week, this panel from the altarpiece was painted by Carlo Crivelli for the Dominican Church of San Domenico in the Marche town of Ascoli Piceno. There is much here for the preacher to ponder in this season of Advent.