the birth of john the baptist by jan van eyck
Having previously demonstrated how the iconography in the Arnolfini Portrait points to the Turin Shroud, this presentation of the Birth of John the Baptist sheds further light on Jan van Eyck’s fascination with the relic claimed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus.
While there is some debate about the attribution to Jan Van Eyck for this page from the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, the consensus is that the Birth of John the Baptist is by Jan’s hand and painted between 1422 and 1425 during the period he was employed by John III of Bavaria, ruler of Holland and Hainaut at the time.
That the miniature has similarities to the Arnolfini Portrait has not gone unnoticed by art historians: the red bed, the woman in the green dress, the dog in the forefront, the pattens pointing to the edge of the frame, the beams supporting the ceiling, together suggest that Van Eyck sourced his earlier work and replicated some of its features in the Arnolfini Portrait. Seemingly, the Birth of John the Baptist served as a ‘precursor’ to the later painting dated by Van Eyck at 1434.
Beneath this representation of the biblical account of the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1 : 5-25, 57-79) is another narrative, one similarly found in the Arnolfini Portrait. In both paintings the setting corresponds to a chapel housing holy relics.
The chapel scene and contents in the Birth of John the Baptist represents the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built in the 13th century by the French king Louis IX to house the many holy relics (including the Shroud) ceded to him by Baldwin de Courtenay II, emperor of Constantinople.
Van Eyck also incorporated his interest in astronomy with references to celestial objects, and points to the heavenly light transmitted through passages from Scripture. Just as John the Baptist (Jan) was commissioned as a witness to speak for the light (John 1 : 8), so also was Jan van Eyck in his role as an artist and illuminator.
There is a transition theme running through the painting – a hand-over or a type of pass-over, a new-beginning, or resurrected life after death – initially expressed with the translation of the holy relics from Baldwin to Louis.
I began the presentation of the Arnolfini Portrait by suggesting the painting is structured as a coat of arms and the two main figures are presented in the role of ‘supporters’ to a higher power, joined in a shared pledge of allegiance. This idea is also expressed in the Baptist miniature. Two shields or coats of arms are placed either side of the central part of the window frame – representing the Cross and its ‘Higher Power’. The shields are ‘supporters’ or ‘protectors’ of the Cross and all the other holy relics portrayed in the painting.
The blue shield on the West side represents the kingdom of France. The colour was adopted by Louis IX of France when he became king in 1226. The gold shield on the East side, with its three red roundels, represents the House of Courtenay and refers in particular to Baldwin II of Courtenay, the last Latin Emperor ruling from Constantinople. Between 1239 and 1242 Baldwin II handed over a number of relics – 22 in all – to King Louis IX. This act itself is another representation of ceding or surrending to a higher power and authority, that of France.
Just as the two shields are placed left and right of the vertical window divider, so is the picture itself divided into two vertical sections. On the left is the scene encompassing the bed and the birth of the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets. This side of the painting represents the Old Covenant. The section on the right represents the New Covenant, a new relationship between God and his people, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. John, signifying the Old Covenant, prepares the way for Jesus signifying the New Covenant. The two men proclaim on two sides of the Jordan – John, a baptism of repentance; Jesus, a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This is emphasised by an unusual feature of the overall composition built on a simple single-point perspective grid. The vertical centre line is placed almost at the right edge of the picture frame and the horizon’s vanishing or infinity point is centred on the book held by Zechariah.
It’s not without reason that Van Eyck chose to deliberately draw the viewer’s attention to this area of the painting and its detail. He did the same with the placing of the mirror as the central focus in the Arnolfini Portrait. The two features are related. What is seen in the back room of the Baptist miniature forms part of the back room reflected in the Arnolfini mirror! More on this later in the presentation.
But there is another purpose why Van Eyck adopted this type of linear perspective and the unusual position in the picture for the converging lines. They meet at a point on a Hebrew Bible held by the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, likely opened at the Book of Isaiah where the first of the Latter Prophets called out: “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.” (40:3)
This prophecy was echoed by John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets. When asked who he was by the Levites and priests. John answered: “I am, as Isaiah prophesied: a voice that cries in the wilderness: make a straight way for the Lord.” (John 1:23)
In the opening passage to John’s gospel, the evangelist states that “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Hence the converging straight lines or paths towards Zechariah’s bible, the Word of God.
The Birth of John the Baptist
folio 93v, Turin-Milan Hours
Turin Museum of Ancient Art
The Arnolfini Portrait
by Jan Van Eyck, 1434.
King Louis IX of France, later canonized by the Church.
Two shields, side by side, that represent France (left) and the House of Courtney (right).
Two contrasting scenes... (left) the birth of John set against a spacious red backdrop while (above) the lines of perspective focus on the small red bible in Zechariah’s hands...
Baldwin’s golden bull
So where are these holy relics to be seen in the painting? An inventory signed by Baldwin in 1247, referred to as the Golden Bull of Baldwin II, records the 22 items handed over to Louis IX, and is possibly the likely source used by Van Eyck to portray the relics. However, in his inventive version of the ‘Holy Chapel’ Jan has added to Baldwin’s list with the inclusion of those called to holiness.
Listed below is a summary with Scripture references. Item 8, The Holy Cloth – a reference to the Mandylion/Shroud and the burial cloth of Jesus – can be recognised as the backdrop in the window frame – presented as the head of the Lamb of God. Combined with the central Cross it represents the Agnus Dei symbol adopted by the Templars.
The Lamb’s head is not easy to recognise, but it is face-on, similar to the Lamb’s head van Eyck painted in the centre panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The shape of the window with its eight levels may indicate the way the Shroud was folded and boxed for transportation. The upper sections of the window are bordered with stained glass, perhaps a pointer to the burial cloth and its own unique faint stains that would appear more vivid when heavenly light streamed through the window.
1. The crown of thorns (John 19 : 2)
2. Part of holy cross (John 19 : 17)
3. Blood of Christ (John 19 : 34)
4. Binding cloths of the Infant Jesus (Luke 2 : 7)
5. Another piece of the cross (John 19 : 17)
6. Blood from a picture of Christ
7. A chain (attached to Jesus during his captivity)
8. The holy cloth (the Mandylion/Shroud and the burial cloth of Jesus)
9. Part of the stone tomb (John 19 : 41)
10. Milk of the Virgin Mary
11. The iron tip of the lance (John 19 : 34)
12. Victory cross
13. Purple robe (John 19 : 2)
14. The reed (John 19 : 29)
15. The sponge (John 19 : 29)
16. Part of the cloth which wrapped the body of Jesus in the sepulchre (sudarium ) (John 20 : 7)
17. The towel which girded Jesus to wash and wipe the feet of the disciples (John 13 : 4-5)
18. The rod of Moses (Exodus 4 : 1-5)
19. Upper part of the head of John the Baptist (Matthew 14 : 8)
20. Head of St Blaise
21. Head of St Clement (of Rome)
22. Head of St Simeon (the Stylite)
• More to follow
The window featuring the Cross and the Lamb.