>Even My Email Is Nerdy

>At a recent party which I have mentioned previously, various guests took turns to recite bits of poetry for the entertainment of all. When it came his turn, one of the guests apologized for choosing his favorite passage from The Iliad, as perhaps being too nerdy for a party. “Don’t worry,” said our hostess, “we’re all nerds here.”

Case in point is the following email exchange, which I reprint for your…I hesitate to say delectation. Amusement is probably the better term. Though this writer does spend plenty of time doing very ordinary things, he also does have a habit of allowing the mind to run away with him at times, taking the clickety-clacking fingers and keyboard with it. The reader is of course, free to disagree with my conclusions with respect to the panel in question, but I do hope it is an example of how much we may overlook to our peril the subtleties of the Biblical text when examining works of art – against which malady, ongoing efforts of self-education is the best remedy.

[N.B. The name of my correspondent has been removed to protect his being stained with the scarlet letter of nerdiness.]

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Sat, Jan 29, 2011 at 9:23 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton


I’d be curious about your take on The Baptism of Christ, part of the 14th century Master on the Life of Saint John the Baptist (artist unknown).

See NGA’s picture here: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=272

It is an incredibly rich painting that seems to capture everything that occurred during Christ’s Baptism – except for one element: the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ as a dove.

Any thoughts as to why this was not included?

Have a great weekend


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 6:50 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.
An interesting question, but I suspect there is a simple solution:

We note that there is a small figure in the heavens, whom we can
presume to be God the Father. Jesus is just in the process of being
baptized by St. John. Now note the timing in the following

St. Luke says:

21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been
baptized and was praying, heaven was opened
22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a
dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you
I am well pleased.”

Note that St. Luke says AFTER Jesus had been baptized, the heavens
open and then the dove comes down while Jesus is praying.

St. Matthew writes:

16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove (and) coming upon him.
17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

So again, the heavens open and the dove is seen coming down AFTER the
baptism is over and Jesus is out of the Jordan, not during the Baptism

St. Mark writes:

10. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn
open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

Again, the Baptism itself is over and Jesus is getting out of the
river when the dove comes down.

St. John the Evangelist does not recount the Baptism as an event, but
he has St. John the Baptist talk about it the next day, and writes
that he – i.e. St. John the Baptist – saw the dove come down after he
had baptized Jesus.

We’ve become accustomed to “all at once” imagery, for example the
Three Kings and the Shepherds all appearing at the same time in the
same painting, even though we know they did not arrive on the same
evening. But in the Middle Ages, artists often took a Biblical story
and studied each nuance of it, from line to line, before painting it.
The Annunciation, for example, had numerous “moments” that an artist
could choose to portray for meditation purposes.

A well-trained eye could detect exactly where in the story the painter
was setting the scene based on things like gestures, such as where the
Virgin Mary places her hands. For example, she would have one gesture
for “How can this be?” and another “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Unfortunately this is lost on most of us now, and eventually artists
abandoned trying to paint these subtleties.

Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton
Hmm, I originally considered your explanation, but then I noticed that many of the other paintings of that time impose multiple historical scenes onto the canvass, without consideration for a linear timeline.

Consider, for example, the execution of John the Baptist, in which you have a soldier beheading him, Herod’s daughter dancing, and the presentation of St. John on a platter.

Further, if the historical compactness explanation was correct, then God wouldn’t need to be included in this painting. As you pointed out in the various Scripture passages, it was not until after the baptism that God the Father or the Holy Spirit make their entrance into the drama.

I remain unsettled :-/


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:23 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.

But the issue is not what everyone else is doing, it’s why did this
artist portray this event in this way. The vast majority of artists
do in fact show the dove simultaneously, but this is a possible
explanation for its absence in this particular work.

The Baptism of Christ by the Master of the Life of St. John the Baptist (c. 1330-1340)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

St. John and the Pagans

Tomorrow being the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – one of the “big” saints on the Christian calendar as he gets TWO feast days (the other being that of his martyrdom) – this evening communities throughout Catalonia and indeed much of Spain will be celebrating the popular festival known among other names as the “Nit de Sant Joan” or “Night of St. John”. As I have written about previously, the celebration of St. John’s birthday close to the arrival of midsummer has a number of unique customs associated with it, oftentimes coming from pagan origins. With the arrival of Christianity, many of these traditions were re-interpreted and still continue. For example, the pagan Iberian midsummer practice of immersing one’s self at dawn in the sea or other local body of water, now has a baptismal significance when performed in connection with St. John the Baptist’s birthday.

Admittedly, the appropriation of pagan customs into local Christian tradition continues to disturb some. However, the best way to think about these things is simply to look at any American city or town containing a courthouse or a monument to a great historical figure. We may honor Abraham Lincoln by having built a massive monument to him on The Mall here in Washington, and that monument looks very much like an ancient temple, but we do not go to that monument and worship the statue that sits inside, however majestic in appearance.

As I noted in a piece on courthouses I wrote not too long ago, we may build – or we used to build – beautiful courthouses that would look at home in the Roman Forum, but they have a different significant for us today. They are not places of burnt offerings to Zeus or Apollo, but instead places where we come together to try to keep society together and on a moral course. Christians were able to successfully take pagan symbolism and re-interpret many elements of it, so as to provide a sense of continuity with the past, while at the same time rejecting the theology (and often the immorality) of that past.

Back on the Iberian Peninsula, local transit and security forces are already gearing up for what will be all-night local bonfires, beach picnics, fireworks, etc. In the city of Valencia, police officials have already announced that they will be asking all of the overnight beachcombers who plant themselves on the sand to await the sunrise and jump in the Mediterranean to leave the shores by 5:00 a.m. Among the various venues for the festival in Barcelona, parades of costumed partygoers and fire-jumpers will shut down the port beginning at 10:00 p.m., and beginning at midnight a series of concert performances will take place on the beach until 3:00 a.m.

St. John is somewhat of a dour figure in the Gospels, so one wonders what he thinks about all of this revelry on the occasion of his birthday. An highly ascetic man who felt that he had to go off into the desert and live on grasshoppers would probably have found much of this appalling, on a personal level. Still, such activities allow the people to celebrate the arrival of warm weather, the end of classes, the beginning of summer vacation, and – hopefully – will give them a little food for thought about the message St. John preached as Christ’s forerunner in the Gospels, of putting away one’s sinful life and turning with charity toward others.

St. John’s Night Fireworks over the Church of Santa Tecla
on the beach in Sitges, just south of Barcelona

La Nit de Sant Joan

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Throughout Catalonia, tonight, known as La Nit de Sant Joan (“Night of St. John”) is an enormous celebration. Numerous customs have evolved over the centuries, some of which were repressed during the Franco regime but have managed to reemerge.

Neighborhoods will typically bring together their old furniture and pieces of lumber to create a communal bonfire. Some people will write down their sins on slips of paper to be thrown into the fire, and the more intrepid among them will then take a running leap over the flames as a sign of leaving their old ways behind. At dawn, those who have managed to keep from passing out from the huge feasts of food and wine (no locusts and wild honey on the menu) will go down to the sea, or the nearest stream or fountain, and wash themselves in commemoration of St. John the Baptist’s actions in the River Jordan.

In addition to massive fireworks displays, people dressed as devils and the gegants (“giants”) will make their appearance, as will huge papier-maiche monsters such as dragons and gryphons spitting firecrackers. In local lore, this was the only night of the year devils were allowed out to play, being as far away as you could get on the Christian calendar from Christmas Eve. While not exactly analogous to our Hallowe’en, there is a similar sense of a Christian adaptation and re-interpretation of older, pagan customs. This year as previously, I will be holding my own Nit de Sant Joan celebration, though transferred to Saturday for the sake of those of us who would otherwise have to be at work on the 24th.