Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656)
The Birth of St. John The Baptist
Oil on canvas
1.84m by 2.58m
Museo del Prado, Madrid.
In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples, then Europe's second largest city – second only to Paris – and the largest European Mediterranean city, with around 250,000 inhabitants
It was a major cultural centre during the Baroque era, being home to artists such as Caravaggio, Salvator Rosa and Bernini
For the first time Artemisia started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell'anfiteatro di Pozzuoli (Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli) in Pozzuoli.
It was during this period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist)
It is thought that she may have died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 which killed about half of Naples' 300,000 inhabitants
The work was one of six paintings commissioned representing the History of St. John the Baptist made for the Cason del Buen Retiro, the Madrid residence of the Viceroy of Naples
It is an important work
The feast of The Nativity of St. John the Baptist anticipates the feast of Christmas.
The Nativity of St John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church, being listed by the Council of Agde in 506 as one of that region's principal festivals, where it was a day of rest and, like Christmas, was celebrated with three Masses: a vigil, at dawn, and at midday
It follows the narrative in Luke 1
Elizabeth is in bed, after giving birth, assisted by a servant, and Zechariah, in front of them, is writing something.
All the relatives and neighbours are saying that the name of the newborn should be Zechariah, after his father
Struck dumb nine months previously for doubting the message of Gabriel, Zechariah pens the final judgment on a tablet, "His name is John." in accordance with what he was told
He regains his speech
The name "John" is derived from the Hebrew name Yohanan (יוֹחָנָן), "Graced by God", or Yehohanan (יְהוֹחָנָן), "God is Gracious".
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Zachariah prclaims a prayer now known as the Benedictus (also Song of Zechariah or Canticle of Zachary):
"The Canticle of Zechariah.
67 Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:68 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.69 He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant,70 even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,72 to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant73 and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that,74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.76 And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,78 because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us79 to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel."
Like Mary’s canticle, it is largely composed of phrases taken from the Greek Old Testament and may have been a Jewish Christian hymn of praise that Luke adapted
Saint John Paul II on 1st October 2003 devoted one of his more lengthy talks to the Canticle
"The text is solemn and, in the original Greek, is composed of only two sentences (cf. 68-75; 76-79).
After the introduction, marked by the benediction of praise, we can identify in the body of the Canticle, as it were, three strophes that exalt the same number of themes, destined to mark the whole history of salvation: the covenant with David (cf. vv. 68-71), the covenant with Abraham (cf. vv. 72-75) and the Baptist who brings us into the new Covenant in Christ (cf. vv. 76-79).
Indeed, the tension of the whole prayer is a yearning for the goal that David and Abraham indicate with their presence.
It culminates in one of the last lines: "The day shall dawn upon us from on high..." (v. 78).
This phrase, which at first sight seems paradoxical with its association of "dawn" and "on high", is actually full of meaning."