Monday, December 6, 2010

The Naming of St John the Baptist

Title: The Naming of St John the Baptist
Artist: Fra Angelico
Medium: Tempera and gold on panel
Size: 26 x 24 cm
Date: 1434-35
Location: Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Luke 1:59-80: On the eighth day, they came to have the child circumcised. They were going to name him Zechariah, like his father. But his mother spoke up. "No!" she said. "He must be called John." They said to her, "No one among your relatives has that name." Then they motioned to his father. They wanted to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for something to write on. Then he wrote, "His name is John." Everyone was amazed. Right away Zechariah could speak again. His first words gave praise to God. The neighbors were all filled with fear and wonder. All through Judea's hill country, people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it. And because the Lord was with John, they asked, "What is this child going to be?" His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit. He prophesied... "And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God. You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare the way for him... "

The choice of the surprising name indicates that a major lesson of obedience has been learned: when God names a child, that child is significant in his plan. The protest of the crowd shows that they are unaware of what God is doing. Surely the father of the house will not sanction this breaking of custom. So they motion to Zechariah to find out what the name of the child should be. By repeating the name his wife gave, Zechariah echoes the instructions of the angel, not the crowd and custom. He goes the way of God and amazes his neighbors. His obedience yields additional reward: his tongue is loosed immediately and judgment ends. Just as the angel promised in Luke 1:20, the temporary situation of silence ends with the fulfillment of God's word. The point of the linkage is not to be missed: believe and know that God fulfills his promises.

This painting is one of four panels in various collections which belonged originally to the predella of an unidentified altarpiece. The panels illustrate stories from the legends of the Virgin Mary, the apostle St James the Great, St John the Baptist, and Sts Francis and Dominic. The fifth panel of the predella is lost. The altarpiece would have shown the Virgin and Child and the same saints whose scenes are depicted in the predella. The predella panels show the influence of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, specific derivations from them can be detected in most scenes.

Fra Angelico (c. 1395 – February, 1455), was a Florentine painter as well as a Dominican friar, having entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1418. He became known as Giovanni da Fiesole, as well as Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother Giovanni the Angelic One). Although his teacher is unknown, he apparently began his career as an illuminator of missals and other religious books, and then began to paint altarpieces and other panels. In later life he traveled extensively for prestigious commissions.

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