Friday, July 1, 2016

Joseph Lisowski writes


John discards his clothes
And reveals his youth, his strength.
The large, bare mountains behind
Jut like heavy spears
Pointing skyward as if
Threatening heaven to descend,
To become a shield of grace.

John, unaware, chooses
A rough camel’s hair robe
For comfort, protection.
His journey has just begun,
His cry not yet sung.

In this panel, Veneziano
Casts an innocent boy
To the wolves of prophesy.

 St. John in the Desert -- Domenico Veneziano


  1. Domenico Veneziano was probably born in Venizia (Venice) but moved to Firenzi (Florence) when he was around 12 to study painting under Gentile da Fabriano, one of the last major pre-Italian Renaissance artists, and may also have worked with one of the early Renaissance figures, Pisanello, around the same time, but his work seems to have been most influenced by a younger painter, Benozzo Gozzoli; in turn, he is considered to have influenced Andrea Mantegna, especially in his work on predellas. (A predella was the step on which an altar stood and also the painting or sculpture along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece. The main panel of the altarpiece was normally a scene with large static figures, but the predella featured three to five small narrative paintings in a horizontal format that depicted episodes in the life of a Christian figure. Since they could only be seen from close up, the artist had more freedom from iconographic conventions than in the main panel.) He spent several years painting in Perugia before returning to Firenzi, where he worked for the Medici family. Giorgio Vasari, the gossipy and often unreliable author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which is nevertheless regarded as the ideological foundation of art-historical writing, claimed that he was murdered by a rival painter, Andrea del Castagno, but he died of the plague some four years before Domenico in 1461.

  2. Santa Lucia dei Magnoli was an old Florentine church, founded in 1078. In 1421, Niccolò da Uzzano patronized the restoration of the church and the decoration of a chapel with scenes from the life of Santa Lucia of Syracuse, who was martyred in 304. [No biography existed before the 5th century, and the most widely read account was in Jacobus de Voragine's 13th-century “Legenda Aurea” (the Golden Legend), the most popular of medieval religious tomes. Paschasius, the governor of Syracuse, ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the image of emperor Diocletian, but she refused, whereupon he sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. The guards sent to take her away could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. For her defiance, she set on fire but would not burn, so she was killed with a sword. In the 15th century, presumably because “Lucia” shares a root (luc-) with “lux,” the Latin word for light, the detail was added that her eyes were gouged out prior to her execution, although another version had her removing her own eyes to discourage a persistent suitor. (Naturally, when her body was being prepared for burial it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored.) She is the patron saint of the blind and is often depicted holding her eyes on a golden plate. Before the calendar was reformed, her feast day, 13 December, coincided with the winter solstice, but now it is celebrated as a festival of light, especially in Scandinavia, where the winters are long and dark. In parts of Italy, it is celebrated with a special dessert of wheat in hot chocolate milk; the large grains of soft wheat represent her eyes.] In ca. 1445-47, as part of the restoration project, Domenico painted the“Pala di Santa Lucia de' Magnoli,” an alterpiece in tempera on panel that displayed such an unusual palette at the time that Vasari described it as being done in oil. It was one of the first examples of "tabula quadrata et sine civoriis," a "modern" type of painting that did not have inner frames or a gilded background. The altarpiece is now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the world’s most frequented museums but originally designed by Vasari to house the city’s uffizi (offices). Its predella included panels with scenes of the saints represented in the main composition (Santa Lucia, St. Francis of Asissi, who resided in the church at his arrival in Firenza in 1211, and the city’s own patron saints, Zenobius and John the Baptist), as well as a central, double-size “Annunciation.” The predella ha been separated from the altarpiece and divided among three museums: the “Annunciation” and “The Miracle of St. Zenobius” are in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, “The Martyrdom of St. Lucy” is in the Berlin State Museums, and “The Stygmata of St. Francis” and “John Baptist in the Desert” are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

  3. Just as Santa Lucia’s feast day was associated with the year’s shortest day, the one dedicated to John the Baptist is the longest. (Catholics also celebrate his beheading, on August 29, and the Eastern Orthodox Church adds four more: 7 January, his main feast day; 24 February and 25 May, the three rediscoveries of his head; and September 23, his conception, plus another, 5 September, to commemorate his parents.) A 1st-century itinerant Jewish preacher, he is revered as a prophet in Christianity, the Bahá'í Faith, Mandaeism, and Islam (where he is known as Yahya). He used baptism, the symbol of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, as his central sacrament, and Jesus and many of his early followers may have been his disciples, though John foretold the coming of a messianic figure greater than himself (whom Christians identify as Jesus). The Gospel of Mark described him as wearing clothes of camel's hair and living on locusts and wild honey. (The Ebionites, one of the early Judaistic Christian groups, held that Jesus, his brother James the Just (the first bishop of Jerusalem) and the Baptist were vegetarians, so they referred to John’s diet as honey cakes or manna instead of locusts.) When John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus “like a dove” and a divine voice proclaimed, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Mark later recounted John’s death: John had condemned Herod Antipas, the tetrarch ("ruler of a quarter") of Galilee and Perea, for marrying Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother Philip, and Herodias demanded his execution, but Herod, knowing him as a “righteous and holy man” who he “liked to listen” to, was reluctant to do so. But another Herodias, the daughter of either Herod or his wife, danced for the tetrarch, and he offered to give her anything she wanted; at the urging of the elder Herodias, she demanded the head of John the Baptist. The daughter is more generally known as “Salome,” the name given her by the historian Josephus, who also ascribed the execution to Herod’s fear of rebellion: “Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.” The historian alleged that “the destruction of Herod's army” in 36 was divine punishment for the Baptist’s death.

  4. The Gospel of Luke gave an account of John's infancy, introducing him as the miraculous son of an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were both descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and asserted a family relationship between Elizabeth and Jesus' mother. The archangel Gabriel foretold his birth while Zechariah was performing his priestly functions in the temple of Jerusalem. The Gospel of John described him as "a man sent from God" who "was not the light" but "came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe," and claimed that Jesus' disciples were baptizing more people than the Baptist. John described himself as the "voice of one crying in the wilderness," and Jesus called him "a burning and shining lamp.” Muslims honor both John and his father as prophets and believe that when Muhammad and the archangel Gabriel ascended through the heavens he met John and Jesus in the 3rd Heaven. John (or Yahya, a name uniquely chosen for him by Allah, which has been connected with the meaning of "to quicken" or "to make alive" in reference to his mother's barrenness and to his preaching, which "made alive" the neglected faith of Israel) was six months older than Jesus and was divinely ordained while only a child (a pair of beliefs also held the Mormons, who claim it was when he was eight days old). Jesus sent John out with 12 disciples, who preached before Jesus called his own dozen disciples. The Mandaeans migrated from the southern Levant to northern Mesopotamia early in 1st millennium. They speak a dialect of Eastern Aramaic (“manda” in Aramaic means “wisdom”), but they are of pre-Arab origin. John the Baptist is the only messiah, though they also revere the Biblical figures Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Noah, Shem, and Aram, while rejecting Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.


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