A Seasonal Thought
The BAPTIST and the BACCHUS
by Rev. Michaël Merle
John the Baptist is one of the most enigmatic figures in religious history. According to the Bible, he was born to parents who were too old to have children, and it was prophesied that he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” from birth. When his public ministry began, John lived in the wilderness, wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey. Many believe that the locusts refer to the carob tree fruit. John’s ministry had been prophesied by Isaiah: “I hear the voice of someone shouting ‘Make a highway for the Lord through the wilderness’”. (Isaiah 40:3)
There are two paintings of St John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci, both now in the Louvre. A reflection on them could well provide a deeper insight into the person of St John. There is the half-length, dark-grounded St John, and there is the larger painting of him full length, sitting in a landscape, which it is convenient to call St John in the Desert, though by virtue of certain additions to the figure, the painting is often referred to as St John with the Attributes of Bacchus. The date-range for these late works is broad, but in its beauty and mystery, the half-length St John seems more than any of them an enigmatic final statement, or indeed a final question.
Like all da Vinci’s late works, the St John is the final stage of a long process of definition and redefinition. The earliest recorded stage is a small sketch at Windsor which is on a sheet containing studies for the Battle of Anghiari and is therefore datable to c.1504-5. Compositionally, the St John has its roots in that Florentine period in which other late works like the Leda and the Virgin and Child with St Anne also came. The Windsor sketch actually shows an announcing angel – the angel Gabriel – rather than St John, but the pose is the same, with the right forearm pointing vertically upward, and the left hand pressed against the chest.
In this St John one meets all sorts of contradictions, not only between feminine and masculine, but between a certain sadness and a serene peace. The effects of age must surely play a part in the overall darkness of this painting, but this is merely an exaggeration of the original effect. The three-dimensionality of the figure is achieved by its being brightly lit against a dark background. This chiaroscuro effect is present to a greater or lesser degree in all of Leonardo’s paintings, but in this instance it is used to underline St John’s message, and the gesture of the raised finger found so often in Leonardo’s paintings. This tenderness within the “wildness” of St John uncovers the balm-like forgiveness of sins and cleansing in baptism that accompanied St John’s fiery words.
John was 28 years old when he began to preach and prepare the people for the working of Christ on the earth. He was a mighty man and preached so powerfully, his very words were indeed like flames of fire, and hundreds of people came to hear him and changed their way of life because of his words. He baptised by emersion in water and through this people had a threshold experience and became aware of the spiritual world, and also of their own failings and fall from that world.
So it was that according to the Gospels they confessed their sins after the Baptism. Then they were open to the newness that was coming into the world through Christ. All sorts of people came to John, including Roman soldiers and outcasts from Jewish society. Jesus himself was baptised by John but at His Baptism, the heavens split open and the voice of the Father God was heard, and then there began the Divine deeds that Christ was to fulfil for the earth and humanity – three years of ministry leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection.
John’s message to the people was to repent or radically change their thinking and outlook. He proclaimed that they should look beyond themselves and develop a social conscience. He encouraged them to overcome their prejudices and fixed thoughts from the past and to be open to see what is new and, above all, to recognise Christ, the Light of the World. An attitude to life that was appropriate in the past was no longer valid. The new had to be grasped. The coming of Christ brought about a new awareness of our destiny.
This heaven-pointing St John of Leonardo da Vinci reminds us of the need to change and receive what newness Christ brings. But what of the full-length St John with Attributes of Bacchus? What can this painting reveal about John?
Bacchus is the Roman version of Dionysus – the name is a corruption of Iacchus, an epithet given to Dionysus, for his rowdiness (from the Greek iache, a shout) – and like Dionysus, he is more than the god of wine and revelry: he is an archaic principle of generative nature. John’s shouts in the wilderness seem to be a possible first link to Bacchus.
St John in the Desert is first documented in the French royal collection at Fontainebleau in 1625. It is described in early Fontainebleau catalogues as “St Jean au desert”, but in the 1695 catalogue this title is crossed out and substituted with “Baccus dans un paysage”. This was because of the Bacchic attributed – the panther-skin, the crown of vine leaves, the grapes, and the Bacchic staff or thyrsus, formed from the Baptist’s cross. The modulation between the Baptist and the Bacchus was perhaps part of the original conception of Leonardo. There are other hints of pagan gods in the painting. For example, the cross he rests in the crook of his left arm is entwined at the tip with a snake, and thus becomes an allusion to the caduceus of Mercury. Mercury, the messenger or herald of the gods, is a parallel to St John the Baptist, who was sent to “prepare … the way of the Lord”, and can also be related to that other messenger, the angel Gabriel. So here Leonardo brings together many figures – Angel, Baptist, Bacchus, Mercury: all messengers of the spirit-world, of new life quickening in the midst of sickness and death. “Who is it who rekindles this flame which is always dying?” St John is the great messenger of light. It is this message that we remember at this time and that lives in us at St Johntide. May the great messenger’s message be ever real in our hearts – that Christ may be recognised and our lives ready for the newness He brings.
Who are we?
The Christian Community recognizes the Christian way to be a path of freedom. Fostering the freedom and responsibility of the individual is seen as a fundamental part of the Christ's message and deeds. All who come with an attitude of reverence and open-minded questioning will find the greatest measure of intellectual freedom.
In the Southern African Region, including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, there are four congregations with resident priests. Johannesburg is one of these four congregations.
The Christian Community in Southern Africa has its own website where you may read more about The Christian Community in general. Access this website by clicking here>>.
The Act of Consecration of Man
Saturday (in German) 09h00
Sunday Service for Children
2nd & 4th Sundays 10h00 - 11h00