None Greater than John the Baptist
All that We Have: The Image of Saint John the Baptist in the Daily Mass Chapel, Part 2
Published on January 26-27, 2013 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
The arches above Saint John have an inscription in Latin that says: +Hic e[st] Baptista Ioh[ann]es · Maior Ho[m]i[n]e · Par Ang[e]lis · Legis Svm[m]a · Evvangelii Sacio · Ap[osto]lor[um] Vox · Sile[n]civ[m] P[ro]phetar[um] · Lvcerna Mun[di] · D[o]m[i]ni Testis (Here is John the Baptist, greater than any man, the Peer of Angels, the Sum of the Law, the Sowing of the Gospel, the Voice of the Apostles, the Silence of the Prophets, the Lamp of the World, the Witness to the Lord).
This description of the Baptist might seem extravagant to our modern ears yet it is a description that is almost as ancient as the Church. The words come from an early fifth century sermon (cf. Sermon 127) of the Doctor of the Church Saint Peter Chrysologus (c. 380-450). They were attributed for a time to another early Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230-1298) whose Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) was a popular collection of chronicles of saints during the Middle Ages. This bestseller by Voragine was probably one of the sources that the painter Van Eyck had used for the wording on the inscription.
Two more titles are listed before Domini Testis in the original sermon: Praecursor Judicis, Christi Metator (the Forerunner of the Judge, the Messenger of the Christ). These would have been inscribed on that part of the arch that is covered by the head of the saint.
Such an exaltation of the Baptist is in line with the praise given by the Lord Jesus Himself: “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending My messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’ Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:10-11).
It is in keeping with the Lord’s high regard for His relative that His Church includes John to the rare company of those whose nativities She celebrates in the liturgical calendar. As a rule, all other saints are commemorated by the Church on the day of their death or martyrdom. The Lord Jesus Christ (on December 25), the Blessed Virgin Mary (on September 5), and Saint John the Baptist (on June 24) are the only figures whose births the Church chooses to commemorate and to celebrate with solemnity. They are also the three figures whose images grace the western wall of Saint Andrew’s chapel.
Together these three comprise what is known in Byzantine iconography as a deësis: a traditional representation of Christ enthroned in majesty and flanked by the Virgin and the Baptist imploring Him on behalf of humanity. Deësis is also the Greek word (δέησις) for supplication or prayer: an appropriate reminder of the great prayer of the Church (the Holy Mass) and the many supplications that the priest and the people of God offer daily in the chapel.