John the Baptist may be one of the most important figures to appear before Christ’s actual ministry.
In the Gospels, it is John who presages the ministry of Christ. He is in his very essence a fulfillment of the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, which says that the Messiah would be introduced by a voice crying out in the wilderness (see Isaiah 40:3).
This is fulfilled through John the Baptist’s ministry, in which he proclaims the word of God and baptizes believers in the wilderness. As such, John is often depicted as a bit unkempt. Indeed, he is described in the Gospels as wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and subsiding on locusts and wild honey (see Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4). It is not exactly the image that comes to mind of somebody who should announcing the coming of the Messiah.
Like many saints, John the Baptist has been a favorite subject in religious art for centuries. Because he is so revered, we can find depictions of John the Baptist throughout the entire western world. Artists belonging to many Christian denominations have included him in their work, showing their reverence to the man who prepared the world for Jesus’ ministry. From Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, one can find depictions of John the Baptist in many different artistic styles.
A typical depiction of John the Baptist is St. John the Baptist Preaching, by Italian artist Mattia Preti (1613–1699) who completed the painting around 1665. The typical imagery associated with John is present, including a lamb, which is meant to symbolize the “lamb of God” and a cross with Ecce Agnus Dei, or “Behold, the Lamb of God.” John is also seen dressed in his simple clothing, showing the true humbleness of Jesus’ ministry. In the background, an angel or seraphim peers around the corner of a cliff.
John is shown ministering to a crowd of people under a dramatically dark sky, yet he is pointing up at a ray of light that is shining through the darkness. This signifies the salvation that will be brought to the world through the sacrament of Baptism, which John represents. The figure of John the Baptist himself is seen staring straight ahead, almost as if he is looking at those who are looking at the painting. In this way, it is as if the artist is expressing to us that the only path to salvation and to see the light is through Christ and the sacraments.
While there are many other paintings of John the Baptist, Preti’s was immediately striking due to its dramatic imagery. While it is true that John the Baptist was a humble man, his message and role in Jesus’ ministry was crucial. This painting really captures the essence of John’s role in that it indicates to us, the viewer, to turn to God. In this way, we see John the Baptist truly fulfilling the prophecy and preparing the path of the Lord.