The Christian, Art, and Rediscovering John the Baptist

One of the more memorable experiences I have had in an art museum occurred seven years ago. My doctoral supervisor, and then colleague, invited me and one of his soon-to-graduate PhD students [1] to the Kimbell Art Museum to view Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (1604).

As a part of a study abroad program, the three of us had toured museums in England where our mentor had shown us the merits and benefits of how to enjoy art, and the relationship of Christianity and the arts. Thus, when the invitation came to go to the Kimbell, I was glad to accept though I had not seen before anything by Caravaggio.

My professor explained that this was a painting he could spend an extended amount of time just appreciating its magnificence. While I appreciated art, I had not built up the stamina or skills to spend much more than an instructional time in observation, so I was not sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the Kimbell, my professor led us to the painting. There was a large crowd milling about as Caravaggio’s work was there on loan as a part of a larger exhibit. My professor made some helpful instructional remarks and I read the accompanied description. We positioned ourselves to observe the painting from a short distance as the crowd lilted around, before, and behind us.

And then as if trapped in a time-lapse video, we, in silence, just gazed.

The more I looked and fought off distraction and a shortening attention span, the more I began to see things I had not before seen. The more I settled in and helped my mind to realize there was “nothing next” and that I wasn’t soon leaving, the more I saw the brilliance of what was painted. I noticed choice of color, positioning of the figure, background detail, and, of course, the wonderful use of light and shadow.

This was not a mystical experience nor was there anything mysterious about the painting that revealed itself only to those who could stare the longest. No, the reward came, like in any discipline, in giving one’s mind and heart uninterrupted time to reflect and appreciate.

Through this experience and others, as a Christian viewing works of art, whether art specifically designed to illuminate truth revealed in the special revelation of the Bible or truth revealed generally in creation, I’ve come to develop a few questions to guide my reflection and observation.

  • How does this work glorify God? Whether through the gifts given to the artist or to the works or attributes of God depicted in the art itself, this is a helpful question to search for the answer. For not all art glorifies God nor is edifying to review or contemplate. And often, God-glorifying art is created by flawed artists–the artist need not always have pure motives or an impeccable life to produce God-glorifying art.
  • What is good, true, and beautiful about this work? [2] And how does this work point to truth revealed in general revelation and special revelation? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake remind that God made things beautiful, and reveals beautiful things, “to reflect his own beauty. And if God is beautiful, and if his creation is beautiful, then there is an objective measure for beauty, and we can think critically about it” [3]. To be sure, there is a subjective element to the evaluation and appreciation of art, and what one calls good, another may disagree. However, the Christian knows there is an objective standard to goodness, truth, and beauty and thus should evaluate all art by that basic standard.
  • What can I appreciate about the talents and techniques used by my fellow human being, the artist? Philip Ryken expounds on God’s giving skill and gifts in “all kinds of crafts” in Exodus 31 as evidence that God loves art and artists [4]. Just as we appreciate the skill of a spectacular soloist, or an elite athlete, or simply a brilliant coworker, we can appreciate the work of an artist.

When these questions are applied to Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” there is much to observe and much to learn.

  • Caravaggio’s work glorifies God in his portrayal of the humanity of John the Baptist, and thus his faithfulness to the biblical account. This is not iconography or an attempt at a image designed to replace the reading of the Bible. It is an instructive piece.
  • Caravaggio’s specific depiction of John the Baptist evokes thoughts of what is good, true, and beautiful about John’s life and ministry. Here one sees John as contemplative, as one living among the discomforts of the desert and his camel’s hair clothing, “crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3-4), and fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. One sees the depiction of a man bearing a cross-shaped reed, as one who is like a reed not shaken by the wind (Mt 11:7). This is a painting of a man who knows he is not worthy of untying the sandals of the Messiah (Jn 1:27). This is a “holy and righteous man” (Mk 6:20) of whom Jesus said there is “no one greater” (Mt 11:11), yet he is one who would prefer the shadow to Christ’s light. The arrival of John marked the end of the Law and the Prophets (Lk 16:16). He, filled with the Holy Spirit, came “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). The Baptist was one who aimed to decrease, not increase (Jn 3:30). This painting shows a man who will lose his head for proclaiming truth (Jn 6:27).
  • Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow is captivating as, though it is easy to forget in our digital age, this was painted long before the invention of the photograph. Further, his choice of color, his positioning of his figure, and the life-like size of the painting are all aspects of Caravaggio’s genius that make this painting “worth seeing” in person.

The wonders of my experience seeing Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist” for the first time returned to me, in a surprise rediscovery, this week. As I was making some notes for a family trip to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, I found that the permanent home of Caravaggio’s painting was, in fact, the Nelson-Atkins. The painting that my professor led me to as a special event to see in person several years ago, resides here in my town.

Thus, I can now venture out to see that “reed in the wilderness” and share with others what my professor shared with me.

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For my visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, I made these quick notes that I am happy to share with any interested in seeing some of the collection. There is much more to see than this list.

[1] My doctoral supervisor was Malcolm B. Yarnell III. Our friend and colleague who joined us was W. Madison Grace II.

[2] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011), explains that the triad classification of the true, the good, and the beautiful originated with Plato and Plotinus. Yet, Christian thinkers recognized this formula as consistent with biblical truth as well. Scruton states that Aquinas regarded these as “‘trancendentals’ — features of reality possesed by all things, since they are aspects of being, ways in which the supreme gift of being is made manifest to the understanding.” See also, John Levi Martin, “The Birth of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful: Toward and Investigation of the Structures of Social Thought,” in Reconstructing Social Theory, History, and Practice 35 (2017): 3-56; and Harry L. Poe, “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” in See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism (Kregel, 2004).

[3] Paul Munson & Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2014).

[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake (P&R, 2006). See also Jerram Barrs, “How Do We Judge the Arts?,” in Echoes of Eden (Crossway, 2013), and Clyde S. Kilby, The Arts and the Christian Imagination (Mount Tabor, 2016).