The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest
In the Christian tradition, the figure of Saint John the Baptist, foretold the coming of a Jesus during the first century CE. Considered a great prophet of the age, he preached the following: "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Many listened to his sermon: "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Matthew 3, 2-4)
Centuries later, during the 16th-century movement known as the Reformation, John the Baptist, a traveling preacher who spoke directly to people of the coming of a savior, was given greater importance and particular actuality. His itinerant preacher successors during the Reformation were looked upon as delivering the Word of God directly, not needing authorization from the hierarchy of the Church.
In 1566 – the year Bruegel painted this image of St. John preaching – many illegal assemblies (hagenpreken) were held in the Netherlands. Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists gathered in the open, on the outskirts of the cities held under Spanish Catholic rule to listen to Protestant sermons.
Unlike his predecessors who preferred the high vantage points of panoramic and world landscapes, Bruegel used a low vantage point to give the viewer the illusion of being part of the scene. We develop a strong connection with the crowd that has gathered on the large forest clearing to listen to the sermon.
In Bruegel’s oeuvre it is in this late painting that the relationship between the narrative and the viewer becomes the most intimate and direct.
The vivid and realistic landscape is neither like Bruegel’s local environment, nor connected to the original biblical location.
The scenery is the sole creation of the painter’s imagination, reminiscent of the experience he gained during his travels through Germany to Sicily in the first half of the 1550s.
One of the two tree trunks establishes a stage for the sermon in the foreground...
The second tree trunk helps establishing the picture's foreground...
the forest in the middle ground creates a backdrop for St. John the Baptist's while he preaches...
the view of the riverscape creates a receding background...
along with the diagonal arrangement of the crowd...
Collectively, these elements of foreground, mid-ground and background create a tight compositional structure, without affecting the reality and spontaneity of the overall effect.
The sermon’s audience consists of Bruegel’s contemporaries and fellow countrymen...
Citizens, peasants, and noblemen...
monks, soldiers, young and old...
women and children...
Bringing a Biblical scene into a contemporary setting was a general custom in Netherlandish and German art. By doing so Bruegel, however, aims not only to show the Gospel’s eternal truth for contemporary and future generations, but to also deliver judgement over human kind: just as in the past, in the present we are only able to receive the word of God within the barriers of our immutable fallibility.
Among the audience there are no two poses, gestures, faces or even clothing that are the same.
Expressions of alertness, devotion, ecstasy or indifference are all individually expressed.
The art of Bruegel in not limited to schemes, canons or a set of rules, he is not restrained by prototypes. Just as in this painting life itself unfolds before our eyes in its inexhaustible bounty.
Most of the figures in the fore- and middle-ground are seen from the back.
It is a true testimony to Bruegel’s incredible perceptibility and his genius to animate and characterize that even these faceless figures are differentiated at the highest level.
The figure of Christ stands near Saint John the Baptist, ever so slightly detached from the crowd, gently set apart in his light blue garment, with his arms crossed.
The preacher’s pointing gesture follows these words: “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26-27)
Near the preacher’s pointing left, a man is listening to each word in an almost delirious state. He rests his head in his hand, with his mouth open, and eyes closed.
A woman, wearing a red dress and a white shawl, is watching the speaker with her back against a tree and eyes wide open, clearly carried away.
Is she perhaps seeing her own visions, inspired by the spoken words?
Three boys have climbed the close-by trees and are listening to the sermon, following the action taking place.
Many faces near the preacher express "sacred simplicity” or bemusement close to hallucination.
In others even the intense engagement does not wipe out the signs of sobriety and sense. Bruegel also masterfully depicts a broad spectrum of intelligence among the assembled figures.
On the right side of the foreground two monks are keeping their distance commenting on the sermon, if not criticizing it with certain malice.
One is wearing a hat, its pointed tufty end loosely tossed back, while an ink-well hangs from his belt. His grey cloak is decorated with a Tau, which indicates that he is a member of the Antonite order.
Next to the monks stands a poorly dressed young girl with a large a bird carcass hanging out from under her coat.
The young man in the colorful clothing with his arms folded on his back, standing in a loose posture, used to be mistaken for a ponytailed Chinese figure by a few commentators...
though the sword hanging on his side clearly identifies him as a soldier.
Many examples from the period depict such mercenaries in similarly elaborate garments, and the ponytail actually is the untied band of his helmet.
The Sutler, who appears sitting near the base of a tree trunk is another curious figure of the age. She and her companions provided food and other provisions to temporary military camps. This sutler, shown wearing a finely slit red dress, carries a backpack and a metal canteen for holding drink/
Above her, the profile of a man is visible, with a slightly upwards tilted head and clasped hands. Judging from his turban he is Muslim.
Another turbaned figure is listening to the sermon intensely in the group close to Saint John the Baptist.
Unaffected by the sermon, looking out of the painting, partly concealed by the tree, is a soldier with a moustache, wearing crimson pants.
Presumably, he is securing the temporary gathering, keeping anyone approaching with hostile intent at a distance.
One of the significant details of the painting is the palm reading taking place in the centre of the foreground.
With his back to the preacher, a nobleman, who might be Spanish judged from the black clothing and white collar is giving his hand to an itinerant fortune teller wrapped in a striped blanket.
The fortune teller's wife wears a large yellow hat and a crimson patterned yellow robe, her naked child is munching on an apple.
Palm reading was officially frowned upon by all Christian congregations because any attempt to read or predict the future was considered a denial of the unfathomable divine will.
The man sitting between the fortune teller's wife and the soldier peeking out from behind the tree can be no other but a pilgrim, who has interrupted his journey to listen to the sermon and to further strengthen his faith.
The characteristic staff, the hat decorated with shells, and the thick clothing, providing protection against the adversities of the weather, are all typical equipment of a pilgrimage.
There are two details particularly noticeable above the head of the peasant wearing the yellow cloak and the hat with ear protectors.
The white veiled woman and the brown haired man, together, bring to mind Mary and Saint John the Evangelist supporting her in the Crucifixion scenes.
Behind them an elderly man is trying to help the heavily breathing open mouthed blind person during what looks like an epileptic fit.
Immediately behind Saint John the Baptist, there is a group of Apostle like figures, both in appearances and dignity, who must be the followers already baptised.
Over Christ's shoulder, in the distance along the river bend appears with a hill, a church and a walled city on its bank suggesting a place of baptism.
On the peninsula, hardly noticeable tiny figures constitute a group waiting to be baptised to follow Christ’s example.
Taking in St. John the Baptist's sermon, the large assembly, and perhaps the river baptism scene in the distance, is the group of figures perched in the branches of the large tree to the right. Although they form part of the audience, seated up on the hill they are somewhat separate from the crowd, as if they were in a theatre box or balcony.
One Bruegel scholar has thought to have discovered the artist, his wife and his mother-in-law among the group in the figure of the long bearded man in profile, the woman with in blue-green gown and the woman in the red gown beside her. However, this identification remains uncertain.
Pieter Bruegel I
The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566)
Oil on wood, 95 × 160.5 cm
Budapest, Szépművészeti Múzeum
text by Vilmos Tátrai