Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Passion of St. John the Baptist

From the Prado:

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Herod’s Banquet
1630 - 1633. Oil on canvas

This work depicts the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist due to the perfidy of Salome, who asked for his head after seducing King Herod with her dancing. Strobel, a painter of Polish origin, tells the story on an enormous stage that represents to moment of the martyrdom on the far right, where we can see the saint´s decapitated body. On the other side of the large column, the figure of Salome shows a platter with John´s head to Herod, who is terrified. The rest of the painting to the left shows the banquet, which the painter depicts with innumerable figures, in the manner of a court celebration. The left end of the painting includes various portraits of contemporaneous figures, including Emperor Fernando II and Imperial General Wallenstein. The figures´ strong expressionism and the singularity of this highly horizontal composition are this work´s salient characteristics. As is a taste for precisely rendered details, sumptuousness, and a use of light that was customary in the works of this artist. In 1746, this work was in Queen Isabel Farnesio´s collection at La Granja Palace.

You will have to click on one of those links to see the detail, especially the Prado's site. The way the artist updated Herod's banquet to show all the contemporary detail of luxury and worldly splendor made the viewer at that time part of the story. The Emperor Fernando II and General Wallenstein were among those Herod could not disappoint, having sworn to do whatever Herodias' daughter asked in exchange for her dancing for him and his guests. The contrast between St. John the Baptist's exsanguinated, half-naked body (and his executioner's) and the sumptuous clothing of the guests is most effective.

Today is the Feast of the Passion of St. John the Baptist (which I remember being called the Beheading of St. John the Baptist). As the great forerunner of Our Savior, St. John suffered martyrdom for the sake of the holiness of marriage, denying that Herod could commit adultery with impunity.

In 1529, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, started making comparisons between his own stand in the Convocation of Bishops, at the Legatine Court, and as one of Queen Katherine of Aragon's counselors, to uphold the validity of her marriage to Henry VIII--and of the pope's authority to declare a sacramental marriage valid--to St. John the Baptist's.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia: "When the question of Henry's divorce from Queen Catherine arose, Fisher became the Queen's chief supporter and most trusted counsellor. In this capacity he appeared on the Queen's behalf in the legates' court, where he startled his hearers by the directness of his language and most of all by declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. This statement was reported to Henry VIII, who was so enraged by it that he himself composed a long Latin address to the legates in answer to the bishop's speech. Fisher's copy of this still exists, with his manuscript annotations in the margin which show how little he feared the royal anger."

Also today: Blessed Richard Hurst.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!
St. John Fisher, pray for us!
Blessed Richard Hurst, pray for us!

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