The Christian, Art, and Rediscovering John the Baptist

One of the more memorable experiences I have had in an art museum occurred seven years ago. My doctoral supervisor, and then colleague, invited me and one of his soon-to-graduate PhD students[1] to the Kimbell Art Museum to view Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (1604).

As a part of a study abroad program, the three of us had toured museums in England where our mentor had shown us the merits and benefits of how to enjoy art, and the relationship of Christianity and the arts. Thus, when the invitation came to go to the Kimbell, I was glad to accept though I had not seen before anything by Caravaggio

My professor explained that this was a painting he could spend an extended amount of time just appreciating its magnificence. While I appreciated art, I had not built up the stamina or skills to spend much more than an instructional time in observation, so I was not sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the Kimbell, my professor led us to the painting. There was a large crowd milling about as Caravaggio’s work was there on loan as a part of a larger exhibit. My professor made some helpful instructional remarks and I read the accompanied description. We positioned ourselves to observe the painting from a short distance as the crowd lilted around, before, and behind us. 

And then as if trapped in a time-lapse video, we, in silence, just gazed.

The more I looked and fought off distraction and a shortening attention span, the more I began to see things I had not before seen. The more I settled in and helped my mind to realize there was “nothing next” and that I wasn’t soon leaving, the more I saw the brilliance of what was painted. I noticed choice of color, positioning of the figure, background detail, and, of course, the wonderful use of light and shadow. 

This was not a mystical experience nor was there anything mysterious about the painting that revealed itself only to those who could stare the longest. No, the reward came, like in any discipline, in giving one’s mind and heart uninterrupted time to reflect and appreciate.

Through this experience and others, as a Christian viewing works of art, whether art specifically designed to illuminate truth revealed in the special revelation of the Bible or truth revealed generally in creation, I’ve come to develop a few questions to guide my reflection and observation. 

When these questions are applied to Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” there is much to observe and much to learn. 

The wonders of my experience seeing Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist” for the first time returned to me, in a surprise rediscovery, this week. As I was making some notes for a family trip to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, I found that the permanent home of Caravaggio’s painting was, in fact, the Nelson-Atkins. The painting that my professor led me to as a special event to see in person several years ago, resides here in my town. 

Thus, I can now venture out to see that “reed in the wilderness” and share with others what my professor shared with me. 

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For my visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, I made these quick notes that I am happy to share with any interested in seeing some of the collection. There is much more to see than this list.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at Jason Duesing's blog Footnotes and is used with permission.