John the Baptist by Anton Raphael Mengs by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

John the Baptist by Anton Raphael Mengs

"Behold, I send my prophet before your face." This is not a conventional, benevolent, smiling St. John the Baptist, pointing benignly upward in gentle reminder. This is a full-blown wild man, up close to the picture plane and in your face, as befits a prophet. His message is clear, urgent, and compelling: Repent! This John sits on a rock, and behind him a cliff face signifying the wilderness pushes him further forward into our faces.

At the lower right, a reed, shaken by the wind, makes reference to Jesus' gently ironic, "What did you come out to see?" At the left, John's staff, a foreshadowing of Christ's cross, leans against the remains of a dead tree. This is the Stump of Jesse, "from which shall come a shoot" that is Jesus. And while John is wearing his customary camel's hair clothing, a billowing red cloak foretells his own martyrdom at the hands of Herod.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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