Behold the Lamb of God
All that We Have: The Image of Saint John the Baptist in the Daily Mass Chapel, Part 1
Published on January 12-13, 2013 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
There are two paintings on the western wall of the Daily Mass Chapel of Saint Andrew’s. They are oil on canvas reproductions of two images from the famous Ghent altarpiece, an early fifteenth century polyptych panel painting by the brothers Hubert (c. 1385-1426) and Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-c.1441). The altarpiece itself, known as The Mystic Lamb, or, in Flemish, Het Lam Gods, is housed in a chapel at Saint Bavo Cathedral (Sint Baafskathedraal) in Ghent, Belgium. In the history of art, this work marks a shift from the idealized representation of the medieval tradition to an exactingly naturalistic portrayal. Art historian Noah Charney argues that it is the first painting of the Renaissance since it features the use of oil paint and the realistic depictions of humans. He adds that it is also the world’s most frequently stolen artwork, a work that “collectors, dukes, generals, kings, and entire armies desired to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess.”
The two paintings in our Chapel are reproductions of the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist from the central deësis panels in the upper portion of the opened view of the polyptych. I had these copies commissioned and donated to the parish to honor my father, Jose Manuel S. Zamora, on his 65th birthday in August 2012. In his younger days, my father was a painter, a calligrapher, a welder, a furniture-maker, and a wood-carver. He taught me much about art and I thought it fitting to remember his masterly work with the gift of this masterpiece in his honor.
On the right side of the western wall of the Chapel is the painting of Saint John the Baptist, an austere figure with long hair, thick beard, and bare feet. Over a garment of brown camel’s hair (cf. Mt. 3:4) girt with a scarf, he wears an ample green mantle with an embroidered border studded with precious stones between two rows of pearls. A red cloth of honor suspended behind him has a floral pattern combined with scrolls inscribed with Saracenic letters.
The Baptist sits with hand upraised as if to emphasize the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1) written in the book which lies open on his knees: “Consolamini, consolamini popule meus” (“Comfort, comfort my people”). The illuminated capital letter “C” is visible in this reproduction but the rest of words are not. This verse from Isaiah is but the beginning of the first reading that is proclaimed for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord for Year C, the very passage that foretold the coming of John who was to be the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths (cf. Is. 40:3; Mt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4; Jn. 1:23).
Then again, perhaps, the saint’s upraised hand is meant to point out the Crucified Christ at the center of the Chapel wall, to direct the eyes of every viewer to “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29).